“This move was a complete turning point in my life,” were the words of Cristian Higuita, an Orlando City SC midfielder from Deportivo Cali, who at 21 moved away from the comforts of his home country in Colombia to give everything for his passion.
Higuita is one of six players on the team from Spanish-speaking countries.
Despite initial fears of uncertainty, players like Higuita quickly realized they were not alone with their experience. Home away from home for them is a city known for its strong concentration of Latinos, young millennials and a world player for driving tourism.
“This is precisely one of the beauties of this region, where we not only feel the warmth of sunshine, but also feel a comforting warmth from the people,” he added.
“There are many Latinos here, in the stadium, everywhere – that's a big motivation," explains Higuita, who also admits he did not expect to hear Spanish (or Portuguese) chants from the 30,000 plus Orlando City supporters who rally behind the team week after week.
"Hearing songs in Spanish at the Orlando Citrus Bowl was surprising because I thought they would sing everything in English, and suddenly, there it is," added Colombian teammate Carlos Rivas, who also joins the Lions from Deportivo Cali. “That's a big motivation because they are always there supporting whether we win, lose or draw, always giving us great support.”
Midfielder Eric “Avi” Avila thinks it's something “that separated Orlando City from the league. There are many Latinos here from different counties, and many are diehard soccer fans supporting the team.”
A few of the songs Avi refers to, which echo across all corners of the stadium include: “¡Dale, dale, dale O!” and “¡Vamos, vamos Orlando, que esta noche, tenemos que ganar!”
"When I'm on the pitch I feel comfortable. I feel comfortable and happy because I understand what our fans are saying and the message is always encouraging,” adds the California-born player of Mexican parents.
Tireless City supporters have established a tradition, dating back to the Club’s USL days, to place and wave flags of different countries on the bar, representing the nationalities of fans and players alike. For the players, seeing their national colors ignites passion that carries them through 90-plus minute matches with pride and courage.
After the final whistle, players share positive moments with each other nurturing a lasting friendship among the South Americans, Americans, Brazilians, Canadians, Carribbeans and French players representing Orlando City.
"Rivas and I support each other. To come here with him I think was incredible because being alone is just not the same. At first, we were not very comfortable because of the language barrier, but over time found that Darwin (Cerén), Avi, Bryan Róchez, the Front Office staff and many Brazilians spoke Spanish and we instantly felt at home,” explains Higuita.
Besides their friendships, players rely on families for everyday support. A midfielder with the Lions and a strong figure for the El Salvador National Team, Darwin Cerén moved to Central Florida during Orlando City’s last season in USL, and has slowly managed to adapt to the lifestyle in the United States. The 25-year-old explains how living in the City Beautiful gives him an advantage to making the most of his free time with his family because of the local options available—from spending time at the beach, to taking his children to one of the theme parks.
The coaching staff and players have also put effort into assisting everyday communications on the field. On the pitch, soccer transmits in one language—the one spoken with your feet. The team has gradually adopted key Spanish words to give directions. Words often heard in Spanish from Head Coach Adrian Heath and assistant coach Ian Fuller include “solo, solo (alone),” “¡pégale! (hit it),” “¡aquí, aquí! (here, here)” and the glorious “¡golazo!,” demonstrating how this Latino movement has permeated many aspects of the team.
Change is never easy, but the team and the City of Orlando have offered these players invaluable support and comfort to ease the transition.
“Thank God I came to Orlando," concludes Higuita.