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Throwback Thursday: The Day I Fell in Love with Orlando City

My journey with the Lions began nine years ago today and is responsible for this blog’s existence.

Newcastle players warm up in preparation for the beating they will take from Orlando City.
Michael Citro, The Mane Land

The following is a love story, and it started nine years ago today.

A new soccer club was in town, and had been for a while, but with life and family and work and all of the other day-to-day things that happen, I had not yet been able to go see the team play. I had been aware of Orlando City and had been trying to get out to see a match, but week after week life just seemed to get in the way. Then I heard about an upcoming visit from Newcastle United of the EPL.

This was the big club from where my mother’s family had once lived. My mother was born in England and lived Tyneside as a child, in Wallsend, just 20 minutes from Newcastle United’s home grounds of St. James Park. She and her family had emigrated to the United States when she was still very young. I am a Manchester United fan but I’ve always had a soft spot for Newcastle because of my mom formerly living in that area. So, the Orlando City vs. Newcastle friendly on July 23, 2011 was a match I couldn’t miss. I put everything aside and made plans to attend.

It was my first Orlando City match and I wanted to soak in some atmosphere. I wandered around at the carnival midway-like section inside the entrance gate. I walked around to each booth and picked up several free gizmos and tchotchkes. I looked longingly at the shirts but I didn’t have enough cash on hand to get both a t-shirt and a scarf, so I opted for a scarf. It was the first in what is now a collection on my man cave wall.

I wasn’t sure where I wanted to sit, so ultimately I ended up getting seats near midfield at the stadium that was still known as the Citrus Bowl and watched the teams warm up (the Newcastle warm-up is pictured above, in a shot I took from my seat). There were a lot of Newcastle fans in attendance, but Orlando fans were also there in good numbers. The weather was good. I got a beer and my spirits were high. I hoped the local USL club could make a good showing against the giants from England.

Boy, did the lads accomplish that.

Adrian Heath’s red-clad Lions (yes, they wore red kits back then) approached this match like it was a big game rather than a friendly. The Newcastle players were on their heels and the Lions were clearly the better side, fashioning several scoring chances but not breaking through until Kevin Molino with a quarter of an hour remaining. Orlando had multiple opportunities to go on and double the lead but either missed just wide or saw their shots saved.

Throughout the match, the supporters chanted, jumped, and sang. They harried Newcastle goalkeeper Fraser Forster with streamers. There were horns and drums and it was like a street party wrapped around a soccer match. When the final whistle blew and the fans celebrated amidst the dejected Newcastle supporters, I realized I was smitten. Orlando City was the newest love of my life. You can see the highlights here:

It doesn’t seem like a lot of fans by the club’s MLS standards, but the crowd was pretty sizable for a USL club playing a friendly.

Things magically stopped getting in the way of my attending matches after that. This lasted through the playoffs, right up until the USL Pro final. Although I regret not going to that, due in part because I didn’t think the weather would allow the match to be played, I was able to watch on television as the Lions completed their championship run.

My love affair with the Lions continued throughout the USL days and once the jump to MLS was announced, I knew I wanted to run a blog covering the team. It would be nice if I could create income with it but I knew I didn’t want to take on any of the technical headaches. I knew SBNation didn’t have an OCSC blog yet and I inquired about starting one. I was told there was a lot of interest in Orlando City and there would be competition to see whose blog would get the spot. I had credentials from several years of blogging about college football and knew some folks already at SBNation with other sites. I was advised to start my blog and show the folks at SBNation what I could do, so I created a free Wordpress site and started covering the team myself — then quickly added a few other folks who were interested in being part of telling the OCSC story.

We soon grew from about 20 page views a day to around 2,000, started building our social media presence, and drew the attention and approval of SBNation. After just a few months at the free Wordpress site, we made the move to the SBNation platform and we’ve been doing it ever since. We have had periods of growth and shrinkage at The Mane Land over the years, but we still do this out of our love for the club. Only a few of us have had any semblance of journalism training. Most of our contributors are just regular fans who like to talk about the team (and if you think you might enjoy it too, here’s how you can join us).

But everything you read here at SBNation about Orlando City has its roots tied deeply to that game nine years ago. If it had been a boring match, or if Newcastle had blown out the Lions, if our SBN Newcastle friends hadn’t become upset enough to write this post about the match, The Mane Land would likely not exist today. You’d still likely have an OCSC blog at SBNation, but it would look much different. I’m proud that we’re here and there aren’t many days that I don’t think back to that friendly on July 23, 2011.

As they say, you never forget your first time.

Were you at the Newcastle match? If so, what do you remember most? If not, when did you fall in love with OCSC? Let me know in the comments below.