This past weekend was a big one for the Orlando City Alumni Association. During halftime of the Orlando City and Columbus Crew match this past Sunday, members of the alumni were honored at midfield and just days before, they played in a friendly rivalry match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies alumni.
For the second consecutive year, generations of Orlando soccer players came out to participate in the alumni match, this time, hosting a bevy of players that didn’t make the game last year. One of which was goalkeeper Justin Bryant, who made the eight hour drive from Wilmington, North Carolina to play in the match.
“It was a blast. Great to see all the guys again,” Bryant said after the game. “Everyone had a great time, the Iron Lion Firm and the Ruckus were great, the organization was terrific, I couldn’t have asked for a better night.”
Bryant played two years in the City Beautiful, from 1987-1988, with the Orlando Lions. The longime keeper turned to coaching after his playing days and has been an assistant at Radford University, Elon University, North Carolina State and now at North Carolina at Wilmington with the women’s team.
He is also an author, having written for Goalkeeper Magazine, Howler Magazine and When Saturday Comes. He’s also written a standalone book, titled, Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness, which delves into his time with the Orlando Lions team and what soccer was like back in the day.
For Bryant, the special bond between himself and the city has always remained, despite living outside of Orlando for so many years. Now, to be able to come back and represent the club, is very special feeling for him.
“It’s really tremendous,” Bryant said, “The people that put the alumni association together a few years ago, it’s been a genuine gift. I’ve always had a soft spot for the club from the USL days, but to see, in a formal way, all the guys welcomed back and recognized in a formal way, it shows really good outreach on the club’s behalf. I know all the guys really appreciate it a lot and it’s just tremendous to see what it’s grown into.”
While the older players had good times reminiscing, the younger players, such as centerback Kieron Bernard, had just as much fun being a part of the celebration. Bernard, a defender for the most recent USL team from 2011-2013, followed the team as they moved from Austin, Texas and has seen the club grow before his eyes.
“It really exceeded my expectations,” Bernard said, “We tried to have this in Austin with the Aztex and I didn’t think it worked out well. Now, to have them come to Florida and do what they did, it’s just astonishing.”
Bernard played 30 matches throughout his time in Orlando but was forced to retire early due to injury concerns. Despite that, he played almost the entire alumni match and even moved into an attacking role late in the game to help the Lions score.
For the Alumni the match itself, despite what the score was, it gave all the former Lions players a chance to reconnect and play alongside old friends, have the supporters cheer for them as they played and relive the glory days from yesteryear.
Bryant spoke best as to what the game, the Alumni association, and Orlando City Soccer Club as a whole meant, not only to him, but also to his teammates:
“To see what all of this has turned into, it’s genuinely soul-warming to see.”