As Orlando City launched into its inaugural season in 2015, it was the work of earlier expansion clubs in Portland and Seattle that the Lions hoped to emulate. It was in these two teams, both of which had moved through the lower ranks of the United States soccer pyramid with notable supporter enthusiasm, that felt like the best example of what Orlando could be.
It hasn’t gone as well as we had hoped it would. If you consider recent expansion clubs, Orlando is the most unsuccessful team if you use making the playoffs as the measure. Most clubs, have made the playoffs by their second season. The exceptions: still young Minnesota, Real Salt Lake, and Toronto FC.
Now that we realize Orlando City won’t ever be the progenitor of Portland or Seattle’s early success, we are left to wonder what will be. While Real Salt Lake’s achievement of making the playoffs in the club’s fourth season now feels like a goal out of reach as well, it seems Toronto’s challenges are the best lessons for Orlando.
Toronto FC began play in 2007 and made the playoffs for the first time nine seasons later, in 2015. Known for great home support and a soccer-specific stadium, Toronto drew impressive and enthusiastic crowds for years. During that period, the club hired and fired six coaches. The front office consulted Jürgen Klinsmann, and attempted to bring in an Ajax-like culture with Dutch international Aron Winter. Until Greg Vanney took the helm mid-season in 2014, nothing seemed to work. If you followed MLS during this period you knew two things about Toronto: the team’s supporters were restless for success and they deserved better. Vanney’s team, of course, finally righted the ship with three trips to the postseason, two trips to the MLS Cup final, and one win in 2017.
A significant difference between Toronto and Orlando in their first four seasons, are the two Canadian Cup championships the Reds won in 2009 and 2010. While the U.S. Open Cup is an older and larger competition, it isn’t necessarily easier to win. It still requires a few big wins against top tier competition, with the Open Cup having a round or two more of difficult games depending on draws. These championships were able to bring trophies and success to the struggling Reds early on.
Are there lessons for Orlando in the Toronto FC story? That’s challenging to answer, even for a historian. Circumstances matter, and the seasons Toronto supporters endured between 2007 and 2014 were difficult. Toronto only gave its first four coaches around 30 games to make their case, and none of them came out with a win percentage above 38%.
In comparison, Orlando has given Adrian Heath 55 games and Jason Kreis 64 games, with both hovering between 33% and 34% in all competitions.
Toronto gave two out of three of their next coaches 64 games, with worse win percentages for all three coaches. So, it would seem that neither impatience or patience seemed to play out as hoped. It does justify Orlando’s firing of both Kreis and Heath, who were given comparatively more time to find success with the Lions, despite both men arguing they were let go too soon.
The change that seemed to matter the most for Toronto was in the general manager’s office. Having gone quickly through the club’s first three GMs, the arrival of Tim Bezbatchenko in 2013 seemed to bring both stability and vision. The names Bezbatchenko has been able to bring to Canada has been impressive, including Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Gilberto, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Benoit Cheyrou, Herculez Gomez, and Robbie Findley, among others.
It’s hard to argue that Orlando City hasn’t had vision in its attempts to build rosters over the past four seasons. Like Toronto, Orlando has attempted a number of overhauls, they just haven’t worked. Maybe it’s time for a new vision in Orlando’s front office?
Then again, Toronto is six points out of the playoff picture and only four points above Orlando City, so maybe it’s all just proof that there isn’t ever really a winning formula and you just keep trying things. Either way, all signs point to another tumultuous off-season for Orlando City.