MLS playoffs are now in full swing, and Orlando City’s inaugural season draws ever closer. With that in mind, it’s only natural to look at past expansion teams for inspiration on how to come in and succeed. If the postseason is the measurement of success, Orlando fans might want to look away now. Only one of the past seven expansion teams remains in contention for MLS Cup, so there really aren’t a huge array of examples.
With it being clearly difficult for expansion teams to excel in MLS, what can we expect from Orlando City SC come 2015? On paper, the Lions possess all the ingredients to have one of the smoothest transitions into MLS play for a franchise team in recent league history. However, we must look at our predecessors for a lesson in MLS Expansion 101 if we are to succeed.
Our president, Phil Rawlins, has been doing his homework on teams around the league and seems to have taken a fancy to the Portland Timbers. According to Rawlins, “The Timbers are probably our most visited team. We were interested in everything from their fan development, to their sports development, to their marketing, to their season ticket sales and corporate sales, to their player management.”
Rawlins’ mission to emulate Portland is an appropriate undertaking given the many parallels the Lions share with Timbers in their expansion year. Similar to Portland, Orlando had one of the league’s highest attendance averages during their USL days. Fortunately, Orlando City SC will have a soccer specific stadium for fans to call home very early on in its MLS life, and hopefully the atmosphere that the Timbers Army brings week-in and week-out can be replicated by the Orlando faithful. As reported in the Orlando Sentinel, the two cities also share comparable demographics, as well as growth in recent years.
Orlando City enters the league with five trophies from the previous four years of USL Pro play, which is the most successful four-year period prior to an MLS expansion franchise. With several members of last year’s Commissioner’s Cup-winning team remaining on the roster, Orlando will have a foundation of preexisting chemistry to build on as the team moves to a new league.
Now if Orlando City comes in with the on-field success of the Seattle Sounders FC and off-field success of the Portland Timbers, nothing would please the fans more. However, Major League Soccer is a very competitive league, and, excluding the Sounders anomaly, expansion teams have had a hard going in recent years. Realistically it takes time to build success, and few expansion teams have established themselves as perennial title contenders.
Nevertheless, very few clubs have entered the league with an established fan base, a soccer-specific stadium, and a level of success that Orlando has experienced in the years leading up to expansion.