Our City is a weekly column dedicated to the culture and history surrounding Orlando City and Major League Soccer.
If you are looking for the root of Dom Dwyer’s passionate relationship with Orlando City’s most faithful supporters, wind back the calendar to March 30, 2013. On a beautifully mild Florida evening in the city of St. Petersburg, the Lions and a company of thousands of away supporters were in town to finish off the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the first, and only, I-4 Derby. Orlando had won the home fixture, 3-2. As the game moved into the 90th minute, Orlando had done enough to secure a rivalry trophy with a 2-2 tie.
While enough for the team to secure a trophy, the supporters were still eager to get another game over on the Rowdies and win the home-and-away series outright. In the 91st minute, a searching ball from the defensive side of the midfield line found a streaking Dwyer, who easily placed his shot from the top of the penalty box into the bottom right-hand corner. The goal celebration didn’t involve a trademark Dom flip, but simply outstretched hands in the direction of the traveling support.
Something was born in that moment — intangible passions inside the hearts of supporters and Dom Dwyer. For many Orlando City fans, and probably all of the Tampa Bay Rowdies fans, this game was a meaningless preseason friendly that was given an element of hype by an Orlando City front office looking for anything to continue to stoke the passions for the club as they continued the fight to put themselves on the MLS expansion radar. For the traveling supporters, this game meant everything and Dwyer delivered.
It didn’t take Dwyer long to introduce himself to the Orlando City casuals, scoring the first goal of the season in a 3-1 win over Phoenix FC, and scoring in the first home win of the season vs. the USL Pro’s perennial powerhouse Rochester Rhinos. Dwyer scored his first regular season hat trick in a 7-2 thrashing of Antigua Barracuda on May 4.
The chant you have most likely heard in videos of Dwyer’s airport arrival, “He scores when he wants,” was a statement of fact when the chant first arrived in the south end of the Citrus Bowl in 2013. It really seemed like Dwyer did score when he wanted. In the 13 USL Pro games he played with Orlando City, he scored 15 goals. If you add in friendlies, U.S. Open Cup, and the playoffs Dwyer tallied an impressive 37 goals for the club.
Dwyer continued to grow his legendary status with two famous goals to give Orlando a win against the Colorado Rapids in the U.S. Open Cup’s third round. In the fourth round, Dwyer still made the headlines despite not being allowed to play. That match-up was against the club that had loaned Dwyer down to us, Sporting Kansas City. While most loan deals involve a clause that says players can’t play in games against their parent club, Orlando fans were hoping for a reprieve. The Lions didn’t get it, but still managed a shocking win away from home without their leading scorer.
Not long after that game, Dwyer was recalled to Sporting Kansas City, on June 27, 2013. His last game was a 2-0 win at the Citrus Bowl against Antigua Barracuda again. Of course, he scored in that game. Orlando’s first game without Dwyer was a toothless 2-0 loss at home to the eventual regular season champions, the Richmond Kickers. The Lions struggled, winning only one of the next six games.
The team found goals wherever they could to push towards the end of the season, including three from defender Rob Valentino in the last five games. Another 2-0 loss to Richmond sealed the championship for the team from Virginia, with Orlando City finishing one point behind in second place.
Orlando seemed to have found its mojo again and put together impressive wins against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and forever nemesis the Charleston Battery, putting Orlando City into the USL Pro Final against the Charlotte Eagles.
It’s hard to summarize the week before the final. Orlando City founder and then-president Phil Rawlins and the always hardworking front office pushed to bring a massive crowd to the Citrus Bowl. Orlando had won the USL Pro final in the club’s first season in dramatic fashion, only to lose out in the semifinals in 2012. The theme was winning “our” trophy back. The other ripple moving through the headlines and the supporters’ hearts was talk of Dwyer returning for the final game. By this point, Dwyer had unsurprisingly staked a claim for significant playing time with Sporting Kansas City, so a return didn’t seem to be in the cards.
Maybe it was a persistent Rawlins, a word from Dwyer himself, or just an overly compassionate SKC front office, but Orlando’s hero found himself on a flight from Kansas to Orlando to play in the final game. I’d argue that one moment might be something the SKC front office and coaching staff will always regret. They turned a useful and productive loan spell for what would become one of the best players in club history into a love affair between Dwyer and the Orlando City supporters.
I’ve never in my life seen a wilder game of soccer than the 2013 USL Pro final. Over 20,000 fans filled the lower half of the Citrus Bowl — a then record. Those in attendance were treated to a thriller. Charlotte looked to ruin everything, with a 20th-minute goal, only to be answered by none other than Dwyer in the 33rd and 42nd to give Orlando a lead. The Eagles scored before halftime to make it 2-2.
After the break, it was Charlotte again which struck first, in the 58th minute, only for Dwyer to score two more in the 61st and 69th minutes. One minute later, another Orlando City legend, Dennis Chin, put the game out of reach. It was Orlando City’s first academy player to sign a professional contract for the club, Adama Mbengue, and another from Chin to wrap up the game, as it finished 7-4 in favor of the Lions. Dwyer’s four-goal performance is still one of the single best personal efforts I’ve ever witnessed in decades of watching soccer.
The 2013 season was an important one in the long fight to take Orlando City into MLS. While things seemed to be moving in the right direction, everything felt tentative at that time. It was a belief among those of us in the stands that a win in the final and an impressive attendance record for both the regular season and the final game could be enough to push us over the finish line. It is hard to understate or even fully explain the important role Dwyer played in helping Orlando turn our bonfire of excitement into a forest fire. Orlando City was announced as the 21st MLS franchise in November of 2013, just 63 days after the club won the USL Pro final.
As Orlando City moved into MLS and Dwyer moved into stardom, the relationship never fully extinguished. Rumors always seemed to circle around the Orlando favorite returning home, and the player never did anything to squelch them. Dwyer arrived for his first game against the now MLS Lions wearing this backpack in 2015. Social media went crazy. Then coach Adrian Heath claimed Dwyer’s “spiritual home” was in Orlando and was also fined by the league for tampering.
The back and forth between Dwyer and Orlando City’s social media went on, a mutual appreciation society formed each time Dwyer came anywhere near the City Beautiful. I’m not sure how, but Sporting Kansas City could try and get tampering charges against most of Orlando City’s Twitter followers for their #FreeDom campaign. Our own site was not above fueling the fire a wee bit and perhaps irritating Sporting supporters a little.
Despite the back and forth love, until last week, everything seemed to be more nostalgic or hopefully abstract from both sides...that was until last week.
When rumors of a Dom Dwyer return started circling, the Orlando faithful walked a thin line of hope, for fear the silly season was just stirring up more rumors. Seeing him arrive at Orlando International Airport, those same fans jumped that line of hope and brushed past security to embrace their returning hero.