Our City is a weekly column looking at the culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer.
Over the past two weeks I’ve explored Orlando City’s legacy of U.S. Open Cup runs and its first coach, Adrian Heath. If you read regularly, you know I’m prone to nostalgia for the USL days of Orlando City. As a historian, by both training and trade, looking at the past is an occupational hazard. I was reminded of just how much this last week by some thoughtful comments on these articles from people who disagreed with me. These commenters and friends brought up some valid points. While I’ll never not love the old days, I’d like to have a look at things from another perspective today. A little bit of point-counterpoint with myself, if you will.
A stubborn adherence to your own opinions seems to dominate our societal landscape. To entrench yourself behind your views and fight anyone who disagrees has become our national pastime thanks to social media. I’ve always been taught, by my parents and by higher education, to know how to look at both sides and understand where other people’s points of view are coming from. It is in that spirit I will argue against the legacy of Orlando City’s USL days and the importance of the club’s history. The future is now, and this season is what matters.
When you consider the MLS incarnation of Orlando City, these factors undermine anyone who champions a nostalgic view of the clubs’ lower league past:
Orlando City Stadium
First and foremost, there is Orlando City Stadium. This architectural marvel exists for only one purpose — top tier soccer. As claimed by nearly any soccer pundit in America, Orlando City has constructed one of the best soccer stadiums in the United States. Not only is it “soccer specific” but it feels exactly like any of the local stadiums in the top European leagues. The only reason it exists, and the reason it has been able to grow in capacity and stature from the original version, is because fans are drawn to see top players and high-quality soccer. This is not the stadium of a lower league club, this is the stadium of a top club that is competitively looking to make an international name for itself.
Speaking of international names, let’s talk about Kaká. While this season hasn’t been his best, we’ve been treated to the opportunity to see a former FIFA Player of the Year play (mostly) week in and week out over the past few years. We’ve seen Kaká play so much that we’ve forgotten it’s actually kind of a big deal that he’s even here. Add to that opposing players like David Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Sebastian Giovinco, plus domestic stars like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, or Jozy Altidore. These players, if they aren’t named Didier Drogba, won’t ever be seen hitting the back of the net in the USL.
The Supporting Cast
Sure, the league has some top stars, but even further down the roster Orlando City fans have been spoiled with opportunities to see great players like U.S. National Team player Jonathan Spector, rising star and Canadian National Team player Cyle Larin, and of course fan favorite Joe Bendik. On the other side of the ball, top young talented players from all over North, South, and Central America are playing in MLS. Despite any comment on overall league quality, and sure there are some worthy critiques, MLS is still light-years ahead of any team fielded by a USL club.
Orlando’s MLS incarnation is an infinitely easier team to support. Better media coverage across the board and a complete game-day television package mean the team is front and center for new fans. Watching games and following the team are elevated from YouTube streams and darkest corner of the web’s one-person blogs to games broadcast nationally and locally. News, insights, and transfer rumors are covered by a dedicated Orlando Sentinel reporter, a bevy of league and team sources, and of course plenty of blogs, podcasts, and dedicated Twitter feeds.
Game-day accessibility is arguably easier too, with a stadium located in the heart of downtown Orlando. Sure, the tickets might be harder to come by versus the cavernous Citrus Bowl, but I’ve never heard of a fan not being able to track down a ticket. Orlando City in MLS is easier to support on game day and to follow between games and during the off-season.
Of course, teams like Orlando City and Minnesota United FC have brought with them a substantial pedigree of lower league success. New expansion hopefuls like FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic tout their USL success both in the stands and on the field as reasons their clubs are ready for MLS. In the short term though, it has been the clubs carved up from scratch like New York City FC and Atlanta United FC that have been the success stories so far. Without so much as a ball kicked in anger before their inaugural seasons, both organizations have been more successful than Orlando and Minnesota at filling the win column and the stands. And their supporters don’t have to listen to the handful of leftover USL supporters bragging that they saw their team really take it to Antigua Barracuda all those years ago.
For Orlando City the future is now, and the supporters who are in the stands today matter most. The team on the field, a coach in Jason Kreis who will be undoubtedly one day be thought of as one of the best managers in U.S. Soccer history (and already is thought of as one of the current best), and an organization and ownership group that are building a team to compete now and in the future are all that matter. History is nice for the pub discussions and for those conversations with your grandkids, but it won’t win MLS championships.
So, how did I do? Have I successfully argued a counterpoint to those nostalgic articles? The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. It always is. If I’m honest, I’ll always think Orlando City’s rich history is an important factor as to why I’m a fan and why I care so deeply about the team. Those days meant everything to me. The conversations I’ve had with new fans have been eye opening and I think they were right to call me out on my elitism. Holding up history as a gatekeeper for supporters doesn’t make the chants any louder or the stadium any fuller. An MLS trophy might help those of us stuck in the past move into the present.
So what do you think? What about the current club makes you forget the past and live in the present? Comment below or reach out on Twitter @KevinIsHistory.