For us 20-something American soccer fans, a love of the beautiful game was entrenched in 1994 when the United States was finally granted the honor of hosting the most prestigious sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup. We flocked to Orlando’s Florida Citrus Bowl to see some of the best players in the world, many of whom we’d heard about but never seen, display their world class ability. For me it was a round of 16 matchup between Ireland and the Netherlands. That meant legends such as Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Frank de Boer, and Dennis Bergkamp.
Growing up in the 90s, soccer wasn’t considered by many to be a serious professional sport. While kids played it recreationally, it was considered a children’s game with little consequence. Lucky for me, my father knew the game on a global scale. Though I couldn’t see them, I grew up hearing of teams such as Manchester United and Arsenal and of players such as Eric Cantona and Tony Adams and was given the ability to dream of one day playing at Old Trafford, Highbury, or Wembley Stadium.
I still remember as a child, leading up to France ’98, hearing about this young 18-year-old Liverpool striker that was lighting the world ablaze. Then, seeing the fresh-faced Michael Owen slicing through the Argentine defense and scoring a goal that Ray Hudson would call “magisterial.” Events like this fed my hunger for the sport and intensified my passion for both watching and playing the beautiful game.
Though the childhood dream of a college and professional playing career never panned out, my passion for the sport as a spectator grew. It was the early years of Major League Soccer and the league was struggling to survive. But Florida had two teams in the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion. Then, following the 2001 season, professional soccer in Florida vanished.
I, like many soccer-loving Floridians, became lost, stuck in a soccer wasteland some 500 miles from any other professional soccer cities and 800 miles from any MLS teams. That forgotten feeling existed until the return of the long-gone Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2006, giving south Florida professional soccer. Two years later, professional soccer returned to Florida’s west coast, giving the bay area its own team.
The rest of Florida, including the Orlando market, remained forgotten and untouched by professional soccer until 2010, when Orlando City Soccer Club finally gave us a team to call our own. With a dedicated ownership group leading the way, we had our club to follow. Like thousands of others, I attached my heart to the new club that publically flaunted their ambitious plans to enter MLS within three to five years.
That was four years ago, and today that club still gives me every reason support it thoroughly. We went from envying others that were lucky enough to enjoy the beautiful game in their home towns to celebrating five trophies in four years and anxiously awaiting our entry into Major League Soccer in 2015.
Seeing where soccer has come from in central Florida to where it stands today, I’m pleased to have the ability to contribute my knowledge of the beautiful game and the club we love to those who feel as I do. It’s an extremely exciting time to be a soccer fan in central Florida and the best has yet to come.