Two new USL clubs, Nashville SC and Las Vegas Lights FC opened up their exhibition seasons to sold-out crowds. Building off initial success, professional soccer seems to have broken into two new U.S. cities. The clubs, their supporters, and the league will hope they can follow the successful trend established by teams like FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic, and Orlando City during their USL glory days.
It seems like just yesterday Orlando rode a then-record crowd of over 20,000 in the 2013 USL Championship to confirmation of an MLS expansion call-up. FC Cincinnati averaged more than 20,000 for their entire season, fully eclipsing any attendance records Orlando or Sacramento set.
Last season, MLS new boys Atlanta United packed over 70,000 into their new football stadium to set MLS attendance records, thoroughly eclipsing Orlando City’s opening games of over 62,000 from both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
As a long-time Orlando City supporter, I used to look at numbers like this with a bit of anger and envy. Those efforts in the early days to bring big crowds to Orlando City games added legitimacy to the club I was falling in love with season by season. In those early days, I was a soccer evangelist who very literally dragged friends and coworkers to games. I felt the eclipsing of these records and the hype that surrounded new clubs and their new attendances peaks were like a slight to our efforts in Orlando.
While watching the Las Vegas Lights’ first exhibition game against the Montreal Impact in front of a great sellout crowd, my mind wandered into a different take.
That take was cemented when I ran across an old ad for the USL that openly featured the purple-clad masses in those familiar Citrus Bowl stands. We were the poster boys for the excitement of professional soccer in the early 2010s, and our excitement for the team and the game in Orlando were featured widely in league advertising when the sparse crowds of Harrisburg or Charlotte just wouldn’t do. Teams in Richmond and Rochester, Charleston and Pittsburgh didn’t convey the passion that drew fans to the gates and live streams. The action on the field and in the stands made Orlando, and American soccer, stand out.
The success of Cincinnati, Sacramento, and yes, even our friends to the north, Atlanta United, is a perpetuation of the successes in Orlando that continue to this day. While we aren’t packing the Citrus Bowl to the rafters anymore, the club was fourth in the league in average attendance behind clubs with much bigger stadiums.
Of course, Orlando’s success is attached to what’s been popularly called the grassroots MLS 2.0 movement that is best featured with the incredible efforts to organize both supporters and clubs in places like Portland and Seattle.
Clubs with substantial support work like a healthy biosphere to encourage the overall growth of the game. While I’d sit in Orlando City Stadium alone to watch my team play, most of us aren’t like that. People want to invest time and money in endeavors that are both exciting and popular. While I’ll always find a Dom Dwyer goal exciting, I know it’s just a bit more so when it happens in front of The Wall with chants raining down and purple smoke rising up.
What do you think? Do Orlando City’s successes matter to USL anymore? Have Atlanta United’s inaugural season successes fully overshadowed anything Orlando was able to do in their first season?