Last night, Orlando City held an event for season ticket holders, with a little extra for the Society XXI members. In case you aren’t familiar, Society XXI members are those who have been season ticket holders since before the move to MLS — those of us who remember the waterfalls of the Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium), the drive to Disney as part of the 5,000-person army (I do not remember the exact number, but I think ESPN only held about 5,200 people), and who were part of the what helped to make a USL juggernaut into an MLS franchise.
I, as well as many others, have lamented the apparent lack of acknowledgement from the club of those fans that have truly been “ride or die.” I am not talking about the most vocal fans, I am referencing those who have been with the club for some time, in good and bad, sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. Last night was an open opportunity to watch Head Coach James O’Connor run the boys through some drills, watch some open scrimmage, hear a few words from the coach, and get a few seconds of quality time with every player on the roster.
If you are a Society XXI member, then you obviously knew that the event started at 6 p.m., but members were able to walk into gate D at 5 p.m. and check everything out a bit early. Fans were greeted by some lovely Orlando City staff, given a few raffle tickets, a poster, a scarf, and were able to enter the event through the player tunnel, black lights blazing. Concessions were open and Society XXI members were given a larger discount than just the Lion Nation discount, which honestly would be amazing to do all the time.
Seating was open on the west side of the stadium, so I found a comfortable spot in the front row, just off midfield, to park myself, enjoy an adult beverage, and wait for the practice to begin. The players came out a little before 6 p.m. to a nice ovation from the roughly 2,000 or so fans in attendance. From my vantage point, the entire roster was there taking part in drills, with the notable exceptions of Lamine Sané, Sacha Kljestan, and Cristian Higuita. Sané was off to the side of the main crew, drilling with the training staff. Sacha came out a little later, as did Higuita.
O’Connor ran the boys through a number of drills and then ended the active part of practice with a rotating version of half-field scrimmage. The team collected at midfield to hear from O’Connor and the training staff, and the stadium crew got ready for the interactive portion of the night. However, before they could really get started, O’Connor walked over and requested a moment for all of the kids in attendance to have some time on the pitch. I am not sure this was part of the original plan, but it was certainly part of the coach’s plan, and who is going to argue with coach?
Next thing you know, a herd of children descended upon the goal in front of the wall, and bombarded it with shots. It looked like a herd of cats had collided with a herd of cats chasing an even larger group of smaller cats. If the excitement said anything, it certainly screamed “the future is purple.” As the cacophony of childish exuberance started to die down (honestly, I was a bit jealous of the kids running around on the pitch), the players started to slowly work their way down the side of the pitch, signing what they could, taking pictures and selfies with those who asked, and chatting it up with everyone on the front few rows.
One thing I can honestly say, being one of those folks right up front, every player — every single player — showed nothing but gratitude to the fans. Every player I encountered thanked the people for being there for the club, and for being fans, and in some way expressed just how much it meant to them. It certainly did not seem to be just another outing for the boys, another contractual obligation. It felt honest, sincere, and from the heart — the heart right underneath the crest they wear on the jersey.
It was so much fun that I missed 90% of the Q&A with O’Connor. I submitted a question, but knew it wouldn’t get asked because it was a pretty deep question. The one question that certainly stood out, because it got eerily quiet right as it was asked, was something to effect of, “Which MLS team have you come to hate?” I do not think I need to tell you the crowd reaction to that question, but I have to commend O’Connor for his non-answer to the most difficult question pulled. He may or may not have hinted at Atlanta United, but it could have been feeding off the crowd response.
The remaining players made their way down the line, and no one rushed at all. The biggest issue was a lack of good Sharpies, to tell you the truth. I can also say, it is fun to say thank you to players, especially being able to say thank you in a native tongue. Considering the roster, saying thank you or gracias covers almost everyone, except for a noted few, and I am here to help:
- English: Thank you.
- Spanish: Gracias.
- Portuguese: Obrigado.
- Arabic: Shukran
- French: Merci.
- Irish (Gaelic): Go raibh maith agat.
- Canada: Thanks, eh! (kidding).
We could go through the roster and give you a definitive guide of who to use which with, but I think you can figure that out.
I have to say, if you have the chance to catch one of these events, I would absolutely recommend doing so. It was fun to sit and watch, to interact with other fans, to get a few moments with the players, and enjoy a quality early evening in the stadium. It certainly alleviated some of the pain, and I attribute that to O’Connor. His attitude is absolutely infectious and can be felt from across the pitch. He also shags his own balls, folks.
And now for some gratuitous photos from me, with me, or by me. Also, the training staff has some epic beards!
And here is one of my favorite shots, which proves the future is purple (and for those who are curious, I asked the mother if it was OK to publish the photo in this article, because it was the polite thing to do).
I have a few epic selfies with some players, but you guys don’t want to see that. Again, Orlando City put on a great event, and I certainly hope this is a sign of what’s to come. In good and bad, the club needs to maintain the roots, and those roots are founded in the people that showed up last night, those who have shown up for years, and those who are planing to show up for years to come. This brought me back to those grassroots feels of the USL days, while still having the ambiance and grandeur of being in our own house, Orlando City’s house.