There are opening days, and then there are fantastic journeys that culminate in a surreal whirlpool of emotion that can, at best, be described only in archaic verbal grunts and wild body language. Saturday was most certainly the latter, but why? What set apart this opening match day from the many that have come before it? Is there a singular point from which all things opening day 2018 began to deviate from just another exciting beginning, or was March 3, 2018 defined by a culmination of events that all added to the growing fever?
Do you remember where you were leading up to opening day match whistle of the 2015 MLS season? I certainly do. Tailgating, probably starting way too early, but let me tell you, man did we tailgate. Staring up from my grill and cooler at the southeast corner of the Citrus Bowl, now Camping World Stadium, surrounded by thousands of people in a sea of purple, white, and red, trying to comprehend the level of insanity when over 60,000 people would be watching the Orlando City Lions play in their first ever MLS match. The match parallels are somewhat similar: 1-1 draw, Orlando finishes the match with 10 men on the pitch, the equalizing goal happens in stoppage time, and the team captain was at the heart of the cardiac cats’ last-minute point salvage. That is about where the similarities end.
The next big day would be a year ago, spending so much time with friends plotting and scheming to find parking, to find food and adult beverages, and find some respites of relaxation from the new day that was dawning, the era of Orlando City Stadium.
I want to make sure that one thing is perfectly clear: I personally enjoyed watching matches from our longtime seats in the Citrus Bowl. I loved the very American tailgate culture that was spawned from so many seasons at the Bowl and those wild matches at ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney. I don’t miss the open air feel of the stadiums. I do not miss watching matches played on hybrid turf-grass-astro-green whatever. I do not miss being subjected to the elements, and, like so many others, having to hide under the stadium during those summer downpours, wondering how long the lightning delay was going to be and how well the grounds of the Citrus Bowl would drain.
Marching with 25,000 other fans into the house that the Lions built elevated opening day to a new level, brought my level of expectation back to new highs, and set me up to begin many new traditions, meet many new faces, and embark on a little journey into sports media. The biggest takeaway from last season was it felt like we were home, it felt right. The stadium not only looked the part, but was already imbued with an air of confidence and stability that seemed lacking in the past two seasons. The Lions, and all of us fans, finally had a stadium to hang our collective hats on and defend as our home.
Typically, we as writers try to avoid using words like we, us, or our, especially when relating to something the team has done. We are not on the pitch with the first team playing the actual match. We the fans are not practicing every day, bleeding and sweating in preparation for the next match. Our jobs are not on the line if there is chaos and turmoil on the field this season. This is one scenario where I think it is beyond acceptable to use as collective of descriptions as possible. This is our house, the players, the front office, the staff, the fans, the supporters, anyone and everyone is welcome in our house, unless you are coming to our house looking for three points. In that instance, not only are you not welcome, but we will make sure that you know just how unwelcome you are for over 90 minutes. But I digress.
Wait a second, beard guy, it would appear you missed a season. In fact, I did, because for the purposes of this story, I only needed three opening days to expound upon. Of all the opening days I have to choose from, it ranks about fifth. Sure, it was the second season in MLS, a season after the Lions narrowly missed the playoffs, and you would think that would be enough to move it up the list of opening days. Unfortunately, friends, it does not. Season one and season three most certainly do, for all of the reasons stated above plus some, but they are diminutive in comparison to what just happened this past weekend, and here is why.
If you have been following Orlando City for some time, and have a small grasp on the history, this should resonate. If you are one of the few that attended your very first match on Saturday, welcome, but some of this may not make complete sense yet. Just follow me to the end and I will make everything as crystal clear as I possibly can. Saturday, March 3, 2018, stands as a new beginning, a new start, a paradigm shift, and the home opener was just that as well.
The turbid off-season was complete. Players’ names inked on contracts were all but dry, except for Chris Schuler’s maybe, and it was time to start planning for the daylong events of opening day. As usual, planning was consumed by navigating the minefield that can be parking on match days, but this time it was a simple task. Click, click, plug in CC info, and we had a great spot near the stadium for a fair price. Next was figuring out food and beverages. No problem, someone says. Come visit me over in this lot, I’ve got beer, everyone has beer, and we will make sure you are taken care of. Dang, that’s awesome, but what about food?
Never could make up our minds on that one, but have you seen the food trucks out in front of the stadium? As we waited in line to enter the match, we sampled some amazing grub, although I still wish I had ordered two of what I ate. We met so many friends, new and old, and embraced the day as it was meant to be, a celebration of soccer in Orlando and our collective love and support for the Lions.
Everything did feel a bit different, though. It wasn’t because of the fact that virtually every player who began this journey in purple was now gone. It had nothing to do with the fact that we were about to begin our fourth season in MLS without one of the most recognizable, and certainly talented, players in the world. It most certainly was not because Orlando had just finished with its worst record ever.
Personally, and with very similar sentiments from others I have discussed this with, it was different because it felt new. The stadium now has a personality, one that it has adopted from the people that fill it. The team has a very new persona around it, one that we the fans are getting to watch form and solidify right in front of us. There is a new captain, there are more new players than I care to mention, and there is more buzz around this squad than in any year before that I can remember. Sure, we aren’t talking about the buzz generated by a former Ballon d’Or-type player, but the buzz generated by a team that is built for a singular purpose, a team built around MLS and the trials and tribulations that come with MLS. It is still a young league at only 23 years old. There are clubs that grace our television sets that have more history than almost every city that hosts an MLS franchise. These are undeniable in the worldwide community that is football.
What is singularly ours is what happened this past Saturday, as we marched into Orlando City Stadium in our own respective ways, with our own respective traditions, and celebrated the club, the crest, the family that we all have come together to become. Saturday was something infinitely special, wildly different in feel and emotion. A club that once touted “Defy Expectations” is now a club that is striving to shatter expectations, and you can see it, you can feel it, you can embrace the emotion from the supporters’ section to the street. The Face of City campaign, in its intended root, is just that — bringing this club back to us, the fans. I know I felt it more Saturday than I have at any time before. I was there for USL trophies, for the entrance into MLS, for that first match, for matches against some of the world’s most prestigious clubs, but the emotions I felt as the whistle blew this time were ones beyond any I had experienced before. This was truly an opening match like no other, a beginning to the season like no other, and the beginning of something the likes of which none of us have been witness to, and I am still reeling from being there.
This is just a snapshot of one person’s reaction. I would love to know how it felt to you, whether this was match one, or match 60, and what stood out to you. We all react differently to stimuli such as this, but I have feeling that many of you had a mirrored reaction to mine. Let me know your opening day stories below. This is chapter one in a new beginning for Orlando City, and we all are authors as we move forward. Your additions are key to the story moving forward, whether you understand the impact or not.