When the Sun Set on Orlando’s First MLS Dream: The Orlando Sundogs

As we move closer and closer to our MLS debut, let us take a moment to reflect on Orlando’s soccer past. If you want an example of just how far Orlando has come as a soccer city, there is no better example than the contrasting fortunes of the short-lived Orlando Sundogs franchise.

In 1997, the Orlando Sundogs replaced the defunct Orlando Lions as the local professional soccer club. The Sundogs (an Egyptian term for lion, incidentally) played in the old USISL A-League, a league that emerged as the second tier of U.S. soccer after the foundation of Major League Soccer in 1995. This league had various incarnations over the years; presently it is our former league, USL Pro. Teams that graced this league included new MLS foes like Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps, and familiar teams from the present day USL Pro, such as the Richmond Kickers, Charlestown Battery, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

The Sundogs’ one season of existence was defined more by poor attendances and massive financial debts than any on-field magic. With that said, the Sundogs held similar promises of elevation to MLS that Orlando City held in its first years. Then USISL Commissioner Francisco Marcos saw “the A-League as a platform… for Major League Soccer coming to Orlando in two, four, six years.” 

That optimistic promise would never arrive for the Sundogs. The supporters never showed, with attendance averaging around 1,500, but often as low as 500. The low numbers through the turnstiles were not enough to pay the players’ wages, insurance, or the rent on the Citrus Bowl.

The team finished with 12 wins and 12 losses—good enough to finish third in the oddly aligned Western Central Division. The Sundogs were led by longtime Orlando soccer icon, Mark Dillon, the former manager of the Orlando Lions, and later a director and coach for Ajax Orlando. Local talents included Tim Geltz (Bishop Moore High School and USF), Tom Wurdack (UCF and Orlando Lions), Ian Gill (UCF and Orlando Lions), and goalkeeper Quinn O’Sullivan (Winter Park High School and Rollins College). These locals mixed with international players from nine other nations, including Ghanaian international Sebastian Barnes and former Orlando Lion and 1992 USISL League MVP Sheldon Lee, an Englishman.

sundogs
The Sundogs’ logo in all its glory.

The season ended when the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers knocked the team out of the playoffs. No Sundogs made the league’s first team honors.  While the club’s existence was tentative at best throughout the debt-ridden season, the close of the season saw dim hope of surviving the off-season, despite optimism from new owner Vincent Lu. In October of 1997, Lu lost the franchise after he was unable to show the documents needed to prove the team could fiscally survive another year. The dream of professional soccer in Orlando had been put to sleep for the time being, as the USISL terminated the Sundogs’ franchise rights. The Orlando Sentinel mused:

“as a spectator sport, it is obvious there is little-to-none interest in the world’s most popular game (in Orlando).”

There are a number of factors that account for the very different trajectories of the Sundogs and Orlando City. Most important is how much Central Florida and Orlando has changed between 1997 and 2011. A boom city in the late 1990s became a maturing community, quickly defining its own identity by 2011. The maturation of MLS and U.S. soccer certainly did not hurt.

Former Sundog and Ghanaian international Sebastian Barnes.
Former Sundog and Ghanaian international Sebastian Barnes.

Improved media coverage on cable TV, online streaming, social networking, and internet news sources helped to connect scattered pockets of interest in the sport and unify them behind a local team. The maturation of supporter culture in America helped to add legitimacy and authenticity to the team. Finally, a lot of credit has to go to Phil Rawlins and company. They took a chance on a city needing somebody to do just that. They did their homework and worked endlessly to see the vision through to fruition.

The Orlando Sundogs live in the shadows of history, a sad reminder of the darker days of Orlando soccer, and an example of an alternate history, had things not come together as they have for Orlando City.

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2 thoughts on “When the Sun Set on Orlando’s First MLS Dream: The Orlando Sundogs”

  1. Just kind of a sidenote… Something that didn’t fit in this post. I used to scrimmage with Sebastian Barnes when he showed up at Red Bug Park during our Central Florida Soccer League amatuer team “practices” Awesome guy, really supportive of everybody’s game and helpful. However, the gap in talent was more of a gulf. Not sure I ever once touched the ball when it was at his feet.

    Liked by 1 person

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