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MLS Preseason: Excitement and Frustration

Every year preseason brings hope for the season to come but it can also be a frustrating time in terms of too little fan access.

Orlando City’s preseason open practice in 2015 was a huge hit with the fans.
Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

The preseason is a time of excitement. All things are possible. A fresh Orlando City season brings a clean slate and rekindles the embers of U.S. Open Cup and MLS playoff hopes.

But the preseason can also be a frustrating time. Orlando City has had little continuity from year to year since joining MLS. The team is on its fourth head coach and a plethora of players have swapped in and out every off-season. All teams experience some turnover, but the Lions have overhauled a higher than average percentage of the roster annually. As such, fans can’t wait to glimpse their team each spring in the run-up to the MLS season.

Unfortunately, there are few opportunities to do that. Orlando has famously kept most of its preseason friendlies and glorified scrimmages under wraps. When the team started up, at least media members could turn up for closed scrimmages to share information with fans and there were sometimes training sessions at the Citrus Bowl for the fans in preseason.

The Lions are making two preseason matches open to the public and the club has invited its original MLS season ticket members, Society XXI, to one other. But other than that, the team will be in Mexico for two games and three others are closed to fans.

There are various reasons given when inquiries are made about why these games are closed. Sometimes it’s at the request of the other team, as both clubs must agree to all terms ahead of a friendly being scheduled. It can also be costly to open a stadium and impractical to open up other grounds not normally suited for crowds.

For practical reasons, not having a crowd of onlookers present is good for coaches, who can more easily be heard and understood by players on the field as they shout instructions, and games can be stopped and started, played with odd timing and substitution rules, etc. There may also be some concern that it dilutes the product, although I think fans wouldn’t expect it to be much more than a training session.

Obviously, these are not the same as actual competitive games, and that has also been cited as a reason in the past why fans haven’t been allowed in. This is a poor reason when you consider that in past years thousands of fans have turned up to see open practices (see the above feature photo). That was an event that club officials like founder and then-president Phil Rawlins lauded.

“I’m delighted we did this. It was a good idea,” Rawlins said. “I think everybody’s enjoyed it. The players have certainly enjoyed it. They were amazed at the turnout. They’re very, very thankful. I talked to players that have been in MLS for many, many years, like Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Tally Hall...they’re blown away. I won’t tell you who, but a couple of them said “we never had this many for games. It’s great for them to see this and know the city’s behind them.”

City brought back the open practice in 2016 only to find that the weather for these things can be a bit unpredictable this time of year. But whether it’s a training session or simply allowing fans in to see the team play in preseason, more accessibility is usually the right answer, especially this time of year when it can create more buzz before the season and potentially help drive ticket sales.

Fans don’t care what the rules are or even if you’re keeping score like a traditional game. This is an opportunity to see the new guys, to get a sense of how they look from a distance — their gait, the color boots they wear, their mannerisms, etc. — and to simply get a first look at a new team under a new coach.

Orlando City fans seem particularly taken aback this preseason by the lack of an opportunity to see the friendlies in Exploria Stadium. The Lions will play the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Feb. 12 and San Antonio FC on Feb. 21. These are viewed as lost opportunities to go to the stadium to see the team — especially the Rowdies match. Orlando fans are still passionate about the I-4 Derby rivalry from years past and would love a chance to cheer against the Rowdies as much as they want to cheer on the Lions.

Sadly, that won’t happen. And in recent years the closed friendlies have also been mostly closed to the media, so very little information gets out about these matches, which can produce surprising news later. One example is when Orlando City’s Pierre Da Silva and Philadelphia Union forward Fafa Picault were each suspended for use of offensive language in a closed preseason scrimmage. This news came as a bit of a shock to fans, because they weren’t present to witness it and no media coverage meant nobody even realized the game had gotten the least bit contentious.

In a perfect world, all the preseason friendlies and perhaps even one training session at the stadium would be open to the fans. Making the sport more accessible is good for the league. NASCAR exploded in popularity in the 1990s mainly because fans had amazing access through open practice sessions, pit passes, and numerous autograph sessions. I used to pick up the newspaper before Speedweeks in Daytona and generally would have every driver photo and autograph I wanted by the time the 500 got underway.

Growing numbers of fans led to more media coverage and that created a cycle in which that sport reached unprecedented heights of popularity. That has since cooled a bit due to exponential price increases for tickets, concessions, and souvenirs, more limited access to the largest segment of racing’s fan base, and constant tinkering with the rules, but it’s still light years ahead of where it was before in terms of popularity.

There’s no reason MLS couldn’t use accessibility to build its fan base and popularity, and preseason seems like a great time to allow things that wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) necessarily fly during the regular season (baseball has done something similar in spring training for many years, although it has changed somewhat over time). But for now, that sense of frustration for soccer fans will continue until opening day, when fans can see their team play regularly.

At least we also still have the excitement of a fresh start, a new coach, and new players to keep us going until that first kick.