The Open Practice Event
February 7 brought a great treat for Orlando City fans. The club held an open practice followed by an autograph session for season ticket holders at the Citrus Bowl on February 7. For most of us who are not privy to closed sessions and don't know the players personally, it was our first chance to see the squad on the pitch together.
I was a bit curious what would comprise the actual practice session, and largely it was like the myriad open practice sessions I've attended as a long-time booster of UCF football. The various position groups participated in drills and rotated around the field, with the various position coaches overseeing each group, and Adrian Heath “miked up” for portions of the practice to shout encouragement or instructions that could be heard over the stadium's P.A. system. I had wondered if there would be any kind of intra-squad scrimmage but that did not happen. In any case, that was merely the preamble for the main event that concerned season ticket holders like me.
After the practice, which lasted about 60 minutes, we were invited to the tunnels in the corners of the south end zone of the stadium to come out on the pitch and receive autographs from the squad. The team had a reasonably organized setup, with a roughly 30-yard square area roped off around the entry to the dressing room. The club lined us fans up around the perimeter of this cube, and once the players freshened up a bit, they came out and spent time circulating around this perimeter signing autographs for all the season ticket holders attending.
Initially the squad asked the players to commit 45 minutes for signing autographs and said they were not obliged to take any photos with fans. But the lads were gracious and patient as you could ask any athletes to be. Even Phil Rawlins got in the act, signing autographs and posing for selfies with any fans that asked. One fan, a young man named Rauce (pronounced like “Ross” for us Yanks) who was standing next to me and gave permission to be mentioned in the blog, even got Phil to update his OCSC t-shirt from a few years back.
A Fan's Dream Come True and Question of the Night
Longtime supporters of the club may remember when the Lions plastered the town and distributed t-shirts declaring “Orlando believes in MLS.” Rauce was wearing one of these t-shirts, and when Phil Rawlins came by, he asked the club President to correct and update the verbiage. With several bold strokes of his Sharpie pen, Mr. Rawlins struck out the “believes” printed on the shirt, and instead boldly wrote “IS” in its place. Rauce called out for everyone to hear, “Phil, you're like Walt Disney all over again! You're making dreams come true for me in Orlando!” which raised laughter and cheers from all of us who were close enough to hear his very apt declaration.
I hope the check from Rauce is in the mail, because he's getting a lot of ink in this post. I have to also credit the man for coming up with the question of the night. Not long after players began circulating by us to sign autographs, Rauce began posing this question to them: “Aside from Orlando City, what International clubs do you support?”
The overwhelming favorite among our lads on the squad is Chelsea, which drew a good-natured groan from Rauce each time he heard it, for he is a Liverpool man through and through. In a mental tally I counted ten players on the squad who responded that Chelsea is their favorite international side, while only two responded that they were Liverpool supporters. There were also sides supported in Italy (Milan), Spain (Real Madrid), and Brazil (although I didn't recognize the club, for the question had to be translated for the player by a Brazilian woman who was standing near us).
Superstar and Super Guy
Along with this post I'm adding some pictures that were taken by my friend and fellow season ticket holder, Trace Trylko of the UCF Knightline Podcast. I stood by my post on the perimeter of the autograph area for about two hours, and during that time I collected about 25 autographs from players, including Kaka, who started on the far side of the area from me, but worked his way around deliberately and graciously, taking time to be in pictures with fans that asked for the privilege and smiling just as broadly when he reached us as he must have been when he started.
I believe in assessing the character of a person more by how they act than what they may say, because talk is cheap. Certainly we have heard since Kaka say how much he is looking forward to playing in Orlando since his signing was announced during World Cup 2014, but you hear every athlete in every sport say the same at every press conference when they are announced being with the team.
Last night I feel like I saw in Kaka's expression and enthusiasm and appreciation of the fans that he is a man who can be taken at his word, and we are fortunate fans indeed to have not only his incredible gifts as a player on the squad, but we can look forward to him helping our young club achieve all it can in its maiden season in MLS.
OCSC Getting it Right
All in all, it was a great event, and I think that both the front office and especially the players on the squad deserve a lot of praise for making the effort to help those of us who are season ticket holders feel like they appreciate us. I purchased my season tickets for the club in 2013 shortly after the marvelous championship game that saw the Lions win their second USL Pro Championship. Since then, it is not only the success of the squad on the pitch but the way the club has reached out and embraced us as fans that has kept my enthusiasm growing and my love for this side increasing.
It's a sharp contrast with the experience of friends and colleagues who have been long-time season ticket holders of the Orlando Magic. It even highlights for me how much more the UCF Athletic Department can and should be doing for its loyal alumni and season ticket holders if it wants to build the kind of fan base and local support required to make one of the Power 5 conferences seriously consider inviting the Knights into the “playoff club.” Until that happens, it will only be the most delusional of UCF fans that will hold any expectation every August that the glorious mark set by the victory in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl can be matched or surpassed. And as long as UCF continues to treat season ticket holders like walking ATMs that they can simply extract cash from each time they want to build a new stadium or add a new gimmick to the existing one without some sort of access or demonstration of appreciation in return, the Knights will never grow the depth and loyalty in their fan base that is required to achieve the goals they want to reach.
Pre-Match and Post-Match Refreshment
Continuing a tradition from the 2014 season, my buddy and I treated ourselves to a pre-match dinner and a post-match libation last night. In both cases for the February 7 event, we met at The Hourglass Brewery in Longwood. While the Hourglass does not have its own kitchen, they are in a plaza that contains Papa Bee's, a shop with great wings, sandwiches, and other selections, and the plaza will also soon boast a permanent location for the Wako Taco, a restaurant that has evolved from one of the area's favorite food trucks.
The Hourglass brews at least 10 different beers and ales on site ranging from IPAs to stouts, and they have dozens of selections on tap. They also have a friendly and helpful staff, most of whom seem to be enthusiastic supporters of Orlando City soccer. So when you're in the Longwood area, give them a try.