For a fan of MLS and Orlando City, especially one who writes for this site, the off-season is many things — chief among them, a bit slow and boring. While there’s still plenty of soccer being played the world over, there’s something about it not being played in my backyard that makes the months between November and March quite the drag. One of the few advantages of the time away from MLS though, is that it allows time for reflection and reminiscing. At the relatively tender age of 24, there isn’t all that much of my life to reflect on yet, but today I want to take all of you back to the game that made me bleed purple for life.
The day was March 18, 2017. I was an even fresher faced 21-year-old who was in Florida with his girlfriend for spring break. At the time I did not yet have an MLS team to call my own, but I was more familiar with Orlando City than any of the other teams due to a roommate who supported the team. Since I was living in Baltimore at the time and grew up in northern Maryland, the teams closest to me were the Philadelphia Union and D.C. United, but I’d never attended a match for either of the teams, and couldn’t really be bothered by them. My soccer fandom as a whole had been well established since the mid 2000s, with my support going to Chelsea, the USMNT, and the Colombian national team. OCSC was the closest thing I had to an MLS team, but I was a casual fan at best.
Upon making plans to be in the Orlando area for a week in March, I decided to go to the team’s second match of the year against the Philadelphia Union. The purple palace formerly called Orlando City Stadium had just been built, the team was one of the league’s freshest faces, and I could get supporter’s section tickets for $15 apiece. What wasn’t to love? After making that decision I read up on the team, watched the season’s first match against New York City FC, and bought a couple Orlando City shirts for me and my girlfriend. When the day of the match arrived, we got downtown a couple hours early, explored the fan zone, popped into a few different bars for pre-match drinks, and eventually made our way inside the very freshly constructed stadium.
I remember being immediately struck by how much I liked the feel of the stadium. We were maybe 15 rows up from the field in the supporters section, just to the left of the goal, and I practically felt like I was on the field. As a sellout crowd of 25,527 fans made their way into the stadium, I was further impressed by the noise that grew and grew; not to mention the score of flags and banners being waved all around us. I was introduced to the crowd yelling players’ last names during warm-ups for the first time, and was completely bewildered by people screaming “knight” during the national anthem (In Baltimore we yell “O” for the Orioles).
The starting XI that night was vastly different than what we saw for the majority of the 2019 season. For one thing, Jason Kreis was coach and Niki Budalic still the general manager. The team on the field was comprised of Joe Bendik; Will Johnson, Jose Aja, Jonathan Spector, Donny Toia; Matias Perez Garcia, Servando Carrasco, Antonio Nocerino, Giles Barnes; Carlos Rivas, and Cyle Larin. If that doesn’t tell you how much can change in two years then I don’t know what will. Orlando dominated possession both on the night and for much of the first half, and it was a half that passed pretty quickly for me in a blur of flags, chanting, and drums.
Just as I was growing more accustomed to my surroundings, Rivas found Larin at the far post in the 39th minute, and he tapped it home for his second goal of the season and Orlando’s first on the night, and as soon as the purple smoke went off I had a feeling I’d found something special. It was a nagging feeling that had been creeping up on me ever since I’d walked into the stadium, but after that first goal I knew for sure. Halftime couldn’t come and go quickly enough but some things never change, as Orlando’s old enemy CJ Sapong leveled things with a header in the 52nd minute. If not for seeing the goal myself I never would have guessed though, as The Wall kept right on going as if it were business as usual. For my part though I was a bundle of nerves, I was fully invested in this game and was desperate to see it end in a victory for the Lions.
Fortunately for me, I got my wish. Perez Garcia played Larin through in the 73rd minute and he coolly finished past Andre Blake in front of The Wall, as Orlando City stadium went absolutely wild. Like the rest of the stadium I was riding so high at this point I was practically in orbit, but there was still a little over a quarter of an hour to protect a one-goal lead and boy did things get nervy. Ilsinho struck the inside of the post with an 18-yard drive in the 93rd minute, and Bendik came off his line well to smother a header just seconds later to preserve the win. When the whistle finally blew on 95 minutes I knew I had found my MLS team and vowed to make it back for another game before too long.
After my week in Florida ended, I went back to Baltimore and continued to follow the team for the next few months. I joined The Mane Land as a staff writer in August of that year both as a way to get even closer to a team that was roughly 1,000 miles away from me, and to try something I had never done before. During my senior year of college I continued to write for TML but with schoolwork coming thick and fast wasn’t able to make a trip down to Florida to see my Lions.
A funny thing happened in March of 2018 though. My girlfriend decided to attend the University of Florida for graduate school, which meant if I wanted to stay near her I needed to move to Florida. Long story short: I ended up living a mere hour and change from my beloved Orlando City. While season tickets are a bit out of my price range, I go to as many matches as I can, and have even brought several friends to their first experiences at the purple palace.
Things are quite different now, the team is in between coaches, Luiz Muzzi is GM, the stadium has a different name, and as of yesterday there is no one still on the team of the Orlando City players on the field that night. What hasn’t changed is my love for this team, and my genuine excitement to watch it grow and get better. Even if it isn’t an easy road, (and it doesn’t look like it will be), ever since March 18, 2017, I have been and will be, an OCSC fan for life.