Orlando City SC has grown immensely since making its MLS debut in early March.
While a lot of hard work and dedication is attributed to the current Club, a lot of credit is given to the original Orlando Lions who laid the foundation in Florida throughout the 80s and 90s.
Orlando City pays homage to the original team by using the ‘Lions’ nickname and will honor many of the team’s former players during the Club’s first Alumni Association meeting this weekend.
The Orlando Lions, founded by Mark Dillon in 1985, pushed to grow professional soccer in Orlando, but due to multiple unforeseen circumstances couldn’t grip the attention of the locals. Orlando was not always the hotbed of soccer that it is today, and Mark Dillon knew he had many challenges to overcome.
“Starting a soccer team is like driving a car in the rain 80 miles an hour with the lights off,” said Dillon. “I did what I could with what I had.”
Dillon and Orlando City Founder and President Phil Rawlins had very similar ambitions in bringing the Beautiful Game to the City Beautiful—they both saw the potential that Orlando had to create a stable foundation for soccer.
Although the Orlando Lions were a mere decade old before they folded, the ups came more frequently than the downs for the team. The Orlando Lions lived in two phases. Their first run at professional soccer ran from 1988-1990 before merging with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in 1991.
Their second attempt at bringing professional soccer to Orlando was their most successful. In 1992 they won the USISL Southeastern conference, leaving second place behind by a staggering 31 points, and in 1993 they won the USISL Southeastern Conference, making the playoff final in ’93 helping Dillon win the USISL Coach of the Year award. The Orlando Lions’ most successful player was Sheldon Lee. The Indian-born striker was the USISL MVP for the 1992 season, the leading scorer in the USISL in 1993 and played for the USISL All-Stars in the same year as his golden boot season.
Dillon’s legacy carries on today and the gratitude for all his efforts is endless.
“It’s gratifying. Orlando grew up and the timing is perfect, finally,” Dillon said.
Phil Rawlins is also amazed by the support that his team has had in their inaugural MLS season.
“This community is in love with soccer, and it is in love with our team,” he added.
Although Orlando City has been averaging over 32,000 fans per game—and recently welcomed their 500,000th fan into the Orlando Citrus Bowl against Montréal—they weren’t the first Lions to occupy the Bowl.
In 1991 the Orlando Lions played at the same stadium, averaging 2,700 people per game.
The growth seen in the City of Orlando proves that the dedication from the Orlando fans has matured rapidly, and the love for the game and the Club is being rooted into the city’s culture.
The original Orlando Lions may have faced adversity during their 10-year span, but the foundation laid by the team, and especially by Mark Dillon, is one that is crucial to Orlando City’s success.