Dream Come True

A Dream Come True - Orlando's Journey to MLS

Four years ago, professional soccer landed in Orlando.  After dominating their tenure in USL, Orlando City SC is on the verge of debuting in Major League Soccer.  What seemed like a pipe dream back in 2010 will become reality on Sunday when the Lions take the field against New York City FC in front of 62,000 screaming, chanting and boisterous fans.

In 2010, Phil Rawlins, founder and former owner of the Austin Aztex, ceased operation in Texas and moved to Orlando to join a group called Orlando Pro Soccer.  During the press conference announcing the team, Rawlins proclaimed his bold goal of joining MLS in three to four years.  It was an optimistic pronouncement in a state where ten years prior two MLS teams were contracted.

The team made an immediate impact in the central Florida market averaging 5,418 fans per game in their inaugural season.  The team would go on that year to win the regular season title and the USL Championship at the Citrus Bowl before a record league crowd of 11,220.  

Orlando City and its fans made quite an impression that first year and, just prior to the 2012 season, MLS commissioner Don Garber visited Orlando to see if it would be a viable market for the top league in the country.  After touring the club’s facilities and meeting with supporters, Garber left Orlando impressed enough to give the club a list of requirements that would guarantee them entry into MLS stating that it’s “not if, but when” the club would enter the league.

With a future in MLS very much a possibility, the growth of the club within the community advanced.  Average attendance continued to rise at the Citrus Bowl, first to 6,610 fans per game in 2012 and then to 8,053 in 2013.  On September 7, a  U.S. minor league record crowd of 20,886 packed the lower level of the Citrus Bowl to witness Orlando City defeat the Charlotte Eagles for their second league championship in three seasons.  Two and a half months later, the club was announced as the then 21st franchise in MLS.

Despite a smaller venue and playing further away from the club’s traditional home of downtown Orlando, the club’s momentum progressed.  A massive marketing campaign which included billboards throughout the city kept the club at the forefront of central Florida sports.  For those who hadn’t noticed, the strength of the club’s fan base became evident when, on June 30, the club’s newest superstar Kaká arrived at Orlando International Airport greeted by hundreds of fans and was welcomed downtown by over 11,000.  Three and a half months later, following the club’s final USL season, ground was broken on the new downtown stadium (slated to open in 2016) in front of nearly 3,000 fans.  The excitement around the club was immeasurable.

With passion for the club at a fever pitch, Rawlins announced the launch of the Operation #FillTheBowl on February 6 – aiming to sell out the club’s MLS debut against NYCFC in the 60,000 seat Citrus Bowl.  Less than a month later, the club reached their goal and once again proved to defy expectations.  They later released 2,000 standing room only tickets only to have those sell out in less than 24 hours.

The growth of Orlando City SC over the past four years has drawn attention both locally and nationally.  Awareness of the club has even reached international borders.  On Sunday evening, 62,000 fans will file into the Citrus Bowl and announce to the world – the match will be televised in 30 languages in over 100 countries across every continent – that Orlando is the “Soccer Capital of the South” in the most important sporting event in central Florida history.

Topics: