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Our City: A Look Back at Orlando City’s Transition from the USL to MLS

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Orlando City moved from USL to MLS with a solid plan for success, and seemingly none of it went well.

New York City FC v Orlando City SC

Recent trades have sent Tommy Redding to the New York Red Bulls and Rafael Ramos to the Chicago Fire, and with them the last links to Orlando City’s USL glory days. The trades themselves seem to be decent ones, looking to make competitive a club that has struggled since entering into MLS. They also serve to stamp a Jason Kreis trademark onto the team.

These trades also finalize what has to be seen as the failures in Orlando City’s USL to MLS transition plan — a process that began with so much promise. The plan, beginning with the announcement that the club would be moving to Major League Soccer in October of 2013, was to build an MLS-competitive club in USL and just add the finishing touches once the 2015 MLS season began.

The 2014 Orlando City club did indeed spark a lot of conversations about just how good they could be in MLS. The players, the coaching staff, and the supporters knew that 2014 would be a season-long tryout for players to see who had what it takes to make the jump. Four straight draws against MLS competition in the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic looked good, despite the preseason nature of events. The club bossed the USL all season, finishing at the top of the table and seven points clear of everyone. The Lions would eventually fall in the playoffs, but this dent in the season didn’t undermine the larger project.

Eventually, Tyler Turner, Luke Boden, Ramos, Redding, Harrison Heath, Darwin Cerén, Kevin Molino, and Estrela moved up with the club from the USL. Additionally, Lewis Neal returned to the club through the MLS Expansion Draft. Some of these players were retained with an eye towards the future, such as Turner, Redding, and Heath. Others, like Neal, Molino, Ramos, and Boden, would play a significant role in that first season.

In a now well-known story to the Orlando faithful, nothing went according to plan in 2015 and by the time Adrian Heath was unceremoniously fired on July 7, 2016, the team was slowly moving away from their USL foundations. New coach Kreis, as any coach should, has worked hard to bring in his own types of players, and at times it seems burdened by the weight of the USL leftovers. The moves of Redding and Ramos are the last in a slow trickle of trades and cuts that have moved the club further and further away from those USL days.

While I may wax nostalgic, I’m not sure these moves are the worst thing. This season it is do or die for Kreis — the front office has shown him more patience than the supporters, but either way, he knows the pressure is on. The last thing he needs is an Adrian Heath-shaped ghost haunting his dressing room.

The failure of the Rawlins-Heath plan is hard to handle though. It felt like the right plan at the time. It actually felt perfect at the time, with one year to prepare with players eager to audition in a season full of games, loyalty to those players that had served the club well when they could have moved on, and the kind of grassroots development that everyone on Twitter thinks American soccer needs. Really, in the moment, it all felt so right.

The instantaneous rise of New York City FC, Atlanta United, and, presumably, the newly minted LAFC, are showing the best path to MLS club building is a clean slate and a stack of cash. Meanwhile, Minnesota United, a club cut from a similar cloth to Orlando City, has shared in the struggles of league transitioning. Perhaps it’s a lesson to the teams like the Sacramento Republic, Tampa Bay Rowdies, or FC Cincinnati, who are looking to make the same leap one day.

Just as I’m ready to tack up these last memories of Orlando City’s roots I’m reminded of the club’s DNA. One of the highlights from those USL years was, of course, the time Dom Dwyer spent with the club. His 2013 loan from Sporting Kansas City was his professional breakout party, capped with a heroic performance in the old Orlando Citrus Bowl to score four goals, helping the Lions secure the 2013 USL championship. It was these memories and his relationship with the supporters that paved a path back to Orlando for the striker.

Kay Rawlins, the former wife of Phil Rawlins, is still in the front office and many of the former USL players have also returned to play a role in the running of the club. While Ramos and Redding may have been the last of the transition team to leave the club, strong elements of who we were in those important years remain.

As Kreis works to make this team his, I hope the elements of who we were aren’t completely forgotten and the reminders of our championship DNA encourage him to lead us to more trophies. of course.