The groundbreaking ceremony had just ended and MLS President Mark Abbott, sporting a bemused look, stood in a field behind the stage, watching as Orlando City officials and local elected leaders were interviewed by crowds of buzzing media members.
It was appropriate. The moment was about the club, not MLS—although it was about that too. During the ceremony, Abbott had spoken about the passion with which the greater Orlando area has embraced this soccer club.
“The fans in this community have shown the world that this city deserves a Major League Soccer team,” he told the crowd. “As amazing as today is, there are better days to come. Our best days are in front of us. I cannot wait until next spring when the Lions take the field for the first game in Major League Soccer. I can’t wait until the season after when this beautiful stadium opens.”
His words were stirring and convincing and resonated with me. I was there to live tweet the event, take a few pictures and enjoy myself, but, seeing the man otherwise unencumbered, I approached him.
Introducing myself as the lowly blogger I am, Abbott was welcoming and friendly. Party line or not, Abbott speaks with conviction when he talks about Orlando City Soccer Club and its relationship with the city of Orlando and the surrounding community.
I asked him about the impressive turnout for what is, ostensibly, just a goofy ceremony, symbolizing the labor involved in the construction of the coming 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium.
“You can’t help but feel awed by walking down with all those fans,” Abbott told me. “We haven’t played a game yet in Major League Soccer. Thousands of people come out. They’re all in their purple. They’ve got their scarves. They’ve connected with the team in a remarkable way, so this is great.”
Police had closed the marching route down Church Street to through traffic while the throngs simulated the “March to the Match” that will take place when City begins playing in the new stadium in 2016. It was festive. Drummers drummed. Smoke filled the air. People chanted near the front and talked more quietly among themselves in the back. Small children wearing Orlando City jerseys rode on their fathers’ shoulders. Residents came out onto their balconies to witness and take video of the spectacle.
It was apparent to anyone who was there last night that something special has been built and continues to grow in Orlando with regard to its soccer team. This has not been lost on Abbott or MLS.
“When we were here last year we recognized and we knew and understood that the fan base here was tremendous,” Abbot said. “But there are other things that happened—friendly, committed ownership group prepared to make the types of investments that are necessary to build a team. I think nothing speaks louder than the investment they made to bring Kaká here.
“And what the public officials did in forging that public/private partnership in getting the stadium built. It’s those things, in combination, that really led us to conclude that this is the right place to be. And what we saw tonight merely confirms that.”
MLS has made an investment in Orlando City and has by proxy vouched for the club’s success moving forward. It’s one thing to talk a good game, and another to deliver, but you never walk away from Phil Rawlins or Flávio Augusto da Silva or Abbott feeling like they don’t mean everything they say when they talk about the club.
And it’s not as if professional soccer has flourished in the Sunshine State. Soccer fans from around the U.S. are all too quick to express their doubts about Orlando City on Twitter or message boards. They point out the past failures of MLS in Miami and Tampa Bay and the rapid expansion of recent years. “The USL Pro is not MLS,” they say. Their skepticism is not unfounded.
But those skeptics weren’t there last night. They haven’t been to Orlando City games. They haven’t gathered at Harry Buffalo on Church Street. They haven’t sung and chanted with Iron Lion Firm and The Ruckus. That’s where everything feels different. It’s why you believe Rawlins and da Silva will build a winner in MLS sooner rather than later.
Abbott has noticed.
“It’s totally different now,” he said, speaking of today versus those defunct Florida MLS squads of yesterday. “That was a generation ago. I think tonight shows you what the difference is.”