This coming weekend, Orlando City will play in its first Major League Soccer playoff game as it hosts New York City FC. While it’s the first time the team has qualified for the postseason since joining MLS, it’s not the first playoff game it’s taken part in. In fact, previous postseason appearances helped build the Lions into who they are today.
Founded in 2010, it was always the goal of Orlando City to end up in MLS. The club’s ownership spent more than its third-division opposition and it showed on the field. In its first year, the club won the Commissioner’s Cup, finishing the regular season with the best record. It would go on to defeat the Harrisburg City Islanders in the USL Pro Championship.
It was difficult to build a following back in those days. Without huge marketing budgets, international stars, or national television appearances, the primary way that the fan base was built was through word of mouth.
Without the presence of MLS behind it, Orlando City had to build a following by ensuring people had a good time at games. People in general are loyal to their communities, so building support for a city team wasn’t difficult. But if that team continues to lose at home, it’s unlikely that people will return.
That’s where Orlando City was most successful in its initial era. In 102 regular season USL games, the team went 67-12-23. Orlando finished at the top of the league in 2011, 2012, and 2014 and finished second in the league in 2013. While it got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in 2012 and 2014, it won the league title in 2011 and 2013.
More importantly than its overall success was the success it had at home. When people attend a game for their local team, they want excitement and to see the team win. After all, it’s much more fun when your team wins. Orlando City had a remarkable home record of 40-3-9 over four years and 5-2-1 in playoff games. That success on its home field convinced potential fans to continue returning.
When new fans attend a game, they want to see goals and wins. Orlando City’s average goals per home game increased every year that it was in the USL. After averaging 1.58 goals per home game in 2011, Orlando averaged 2.25 goals in 2012, 2.4 goals in 2013, and 2.8 goals in 2014.
While the regular season games were exciting, the playoff games were even more so. The 2011 USL Pro Championship Game was an exciting one, with a pair of goals in extra time and a penalty kick shootout at the end. Two years later, Dom Dwyer returned to score four goals in an offensive onslaught that saw a total of 11 goals as the Lions defeated the Charlotte Eagles, 7-4.
The success and high-scoring affairs are what lifted Orlando City to attendance numbers that had been unseen in lower-level American soccer. During the 2013 season, Orlando City regularly outdrew Chivas USA of MLS. It was those attendance numbers that forced MLS to allow the team into the league as an expansion team.
When Orlando City first joined MLS in 2015, the excitement built in the USL days continued. There was a history, albeit a short one, of tremendous success and fans hoped that would continue. Unfortunately, despite flirting with a playoff spot in 2015, the team struggled in its first five years, threatening to battle Toronto FC for the most seasons before making an playoff appearance.
As expected, Orlando City’s presence grew when it joined MLS. Most fans today joined after the club was announced as an MLS expansion side. Many of those attending games today are unaware of the club’s history in postseason play. But it was those appearances that resulted in the club joining MLS and having its own soccer-specific stadium.
The 2020 MLS season has been a wild ride for the club. With a new coaching staff, the team made a run to the MLS is Back Tournament final and is now in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in club history. For the fans who were around in the club’s early days, the week should bring back good memories of when playoff appearances were the norm.
It’s hard for an organization to keep momentum when it continues to lose. That’s been experienced by Orlando City since joining MLS. Fans of the purple-clad Lions are hoping that this year’s fourth-place finish in the regular season and its first playoff appearance is the start of a return to the success and excitement of the old days.