This past weekend, Orlando City hosted Atlanta United, one of the newest members of Major League Soccer, and the Lions will now travel to Atlanta for the first time. Like a second team in New York City or Los Angeles, the league was desperate to get a team in the largest city in the south. But seeing Atlanta United shows the special bond that Orlando City fans are fortunate enough to have with their club.
There are two types of teams that generally enter MLS during this stage of expansion: those that come up from lower leagues, and those started from scratch. While teams like Orlando City, Portland Timbers, and Minnesota United earned their way into MLS through strong ownership and community support, others like New York City FC and Atlanta United entered the league due to their city’s large media market.
Despite hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup and being considered as an inaugural team in MLS, Orlando was never really on the minds of those at the league’s front office as an expansion city. Largely thought of as strictly a college football town, the city had a reputation as one that wouldn’t support a professional soccer team.
When Phil Rawlins launched Orlando City on Oct. 25, 2010, he made his intention known that he wanted the club to reach the nation’s top tier. When Don Garber came to visit the city in March 2012, he left the city with glowing remarks about its possibility of joining the league. However, his conditions said something different.
While cities like New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles would need nothing more than a checkbook, Garber told Orlando City ownership that high attendances, government support, and a stadium plan would be needed to be considered as an expansion franchise. The league was setting standards for the Lions that few minor league teams in the country could meet at the time, largely to rid themselves of the small market team’s quest for MLS.
The following two years saw an effort by Orlando City and its fans that created a connection few North American fan bases can claim. Club founder and then-president Phil Rawlins called on Orlando City fans to come out to games and to push their local representatives at the county and state level to support public funding for a new stadium. Rawlins sent out a public plea in April, 2013 to enlist the help of what had become the strongest fan base in American minor league soccer to contact state representatives.
“We need your help,” Rawlins stated in a public release. “We need YOU, along with your co-workers, friends and family, to help break through the logjam in Tallahassee.”
That June, the club sent out another request for fans to contact Orange County and City of Orlando government officials to support the funding of the project. In both cases, the club’s fans came through as the inboxes of government officials at all three levels were flooded.
MLS had decided that the 20th MLS team would be placed in New York and the league would halt expansion for a period of time. To ensure this plan, MLS set requirements for Orlando City that it never thought could be met. The result was that Orlando City fans had the opportunity to be intimately involved with their team joining MLS. That’s not to say that the club’s fans are better than other teams in the league, but the fans of most MLS teams will never experience the same level of connection that those fans from 2013 got to experience. They got their team into MLS.
Soccer has become a mainstream sport in America with people able to watch games from all over the world. This has allowed people to regularly watch teams from countries, and even continents, they’ve never been to. For Orlando City fans that were around in 2013, there will always be a special bond with their local club that few fan bases can match, and that they could never find with any other club.