Major League Soccer expansion can be an up-and-down experience for clubs. One day, it might look as though your club will be the next to enter the country’s first division. But the next, it might seem as though it will never happen. This is the experience that the Sacramento Republic has gone through for years and one that Orlando City once did as well.
In 2013, Orlando City started a hard push to become the 20th team in MLS. The league’s commissioner, Don Garber, visited the city the previous year and provided club owner Phil Rawlins with a list of things the club needed to do in order to make the leap to MLS. Rawlins shared that with the club’s fans and they started on the quest for expansion.
While Orlando City was told, “It’s not if, but when,” by Garber in 2012, that started to seem hollow less than a year later. Garber made it public that the league’s goal was to reach 20 teams and then halt expansion while it worked on making its current teams more financially stable. It also started to become clear that MLS was far more interested in placing a second team in New York, the country’s largest market, than adding a team in the southeast.
On May 21, despite the progress Orlando City made, MLS announced New York City FC as its newest expansion side. With the league at 20 teams, many questioned if that was the end of Orlando’s quest for the first division.
There are two different types of MLS expansion teams. Some are created out of thin air, while others exist in a previous league and move up. While NYCFC had just been created, Orlando City played at the Citrus Bowl since 2011. This provided a place where Orlando City fans could gather and vent their frustration at the situation.
Four days after the NYCFC announcement, Orlando City took the field at home against the Wilmington Hammerheads. For the 8,394 people in attendance, it was an interesting atmosphere. Chants and signs expressed the frustration and anger at MLS for seemingly skipping over a club that had worked hard at growing into the most successful club on and off the field in the country’s lower divisions. Instead, it seemed as though MLS had chosen City Football Group’s money to put a second team in the New York market.
The game itself went like most Orlando City home games during the club’s USL era. Goals by Dom Dwyer, Jamie Watson, and Bryan Burke put the game out of reach by the 52nd minute and a goal in the 88th minute by Rob Valentino sealed the 4-1 win. The actual game on the field might be most memorable to Orlando City fans for Watson’s 40th-minute goal celebration where he autographed the camera lens.
More important than the game itself, which was never in doubt, was the fact that it provided a place for Orlando City fans to display their displeasure together. When a city is fighting for expansion but doesn’t have a team, it’s much more difficult for the fans, or potential fans, to show how they feel. On that Saturday night in downtown Orlando, the club’s fans, ownership, coaches, and players were all together in what appeared to be the end of the MLS dream.
Fortunately for all of those involved, MLS changed its mind about stopping at 20 expansion teams. Orlando City was officially announced as the league’s newest team on Nov. 19 of that year and began play in MLS in 2015. While MLS continues to mix brand new clubs with existing lower league clubs for expansion sides, this is one example of how it can be positive to be an existing club on the brink of expansion.