On the eve of the squad's departure for the Carolina Cup Challenge, Orlando City SC held their inaugural indoor tailgate party at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs today. The event was well attended, and lots of dignitaries from local politicians to business leaders were there. I have no official guess and was so busy enjoying the event that I forgot to ask anyone from the club if there was a ticket count for the number of people that registered and attended. But I would guess maybe 300 fans turned out, which was a pretty good get for a midweek midday event.
The event was held in one of the ballrooms of the hotel, and even though the organizers announced the doors would not open until 11:30, when I arrived at quarter after there was already a pretty good number of excited fans milling about and queueing up to enter. The squad were not in attendance from the beginning, as they were finishing a practice and were not expected to arrive until noon or a bit after. Since it was billed as a tailgate party, food was about what you'd expect: sliders, hot dogs, wings, tacos, and other such items. Coming out of the hotel kitchen it was pretty tasty fare.
I started by wandering around the room and taking photos of some of the setup and a few of the sponsor tents, of which there were a number. They also had a pretty good selection of tailgate games from ladder golf and cornhole to beer pong. There was also a FIFA video game hooked up to a big screen TV and a large inflatable goal set up for kids (large and small) to practice their best scoring kicks. After I ate and while I was chatting with a number of the dignitaries who were there from UCF (my alma mater--Go Knights!) there were suddenly the sound of banging drums and chanting voices in the halls outside the ballroom announcing the arrival of the Supporter Groups. Now I have to admit I didn't keep up much with the Supporter Groups after the kerfuffle last season between them and the club over alleged incidents of misconduct at the Wide World of Sports venue, but I thought we had two official supporter groups for the club and I only saw a table for one of them at the event. But that's a minor point. The important thing is that they marched into the ballroom with their drums and voices and scarves raised in a loud and proud and colorful display of team spirit. They marched around the ballroom and took up positions by a rear door, much like the marching band at the beginning of a college football game before the team takes the field.
Indeed, a few moments after the supporters took their places, the emcee took the stage and introduced Phil Rawlins, who in turn announced that it was time to introduce the team. The players were let in by the side door, and as Phil called them out in numerical order by jersey, they trotted up to the stage to the cheers and applause of all of us. I have to say that we have a very impressive squad, with a little bit of everything. There's experienced leadership that is combined with raw young energy and loads of talent from the top of the roster to the bottom. We even have the great combo of Kaka and Kevin Molino: one a man honored and decorated as the best player in the world; the other a record-setting goal scorer in USL Pro as a member of our squad last season. That just seems to bode well and define the talent and the potential these lads will bring to the pitch every game. I am so excited for this season to get under way!
After the squad were introduced, Phil indicated they would grab a meal and then come back to play some of the tailgate games with fans and mingle a bit. This was the part of the day that I was looking forward to the most, but I took some time to talk to several people from the front office of the club, including a very pleasant young man named Nick. He works with tourism accounts, especially arranging tickets to OCSC matches for tour groups visiting from South America. He's a fellow UCF grad and a great ambassador for the team. As you might expect, the team does get a good number of inquiries about tickets from toursists visiting our area from the soccer-crazy continent to our south, and I'm very glad to see the club has a team in the front office dedicated to catering to these passionate fans. Of course considering the club's ownership group it should be no surprise, but I've seen a lot of organizations that fail to capitalize on key demographic segments of their customer and fan bases.
Soon enough the players did emerge from their dining room to brave the fans, and I can report that they are some of the most friendly, approachable, and personable athletes I have had the pleasure of meeting. My buddy and talked with a number of the players and I chose to seek out as many as I could for brief conversations and photo ops (Kaka was of course surrounded by a quietly rabid mob of star-struck kids, and other persistent fans). Thinking back to the open practice, my buddy and I came up with a "question of the day" for the event, which was to ask the players their impression of playing in the USA vs. Europe, where almost all of the players on the squad have had some level of club experience.
I was a little surprised to hear players as diverse as Estrela and Donovan Ricketts talk so excitedly about the USA as a soccer-loving nation. Following the club last year as I did, I really began developing a strong affinity for this game and this squad as "my hometown team" in a way that I've never felt an attachment toward the Orlando Magic for all the years they've been a part of the sports landscape in this city. All the same, the fan base for MLS in this country still seems to me to be dwarfed by that of the NFL and even major college football, especially with the success that UCF has had in the past few seasons and the traditional "Big Three" college teams in the state have enjoyed for decades. The players we spoke to all were very knowledgable about the growth and importance of youth soccer in our country and the fact that MLS has a persistent and measured expansion plan in place over the next few years bodes well for the growth and popularity of the sport long term in this nation.
I am very sad to report that I have not yet committed the name of every player on the squad to memory, so some of the photos of myself with the squad will go unlabeled until I can be certain I have matched the correct name from the club's roster page with the correct player's photo. I will try very hard to achieve the goal of recognizing each and every player from the biggest star to the last reserve man on the squad by the end of the season--hopefully long before then--but I will ask your patience and indulgence with me while I learn them all.
The next major event on my calendar regarding the team will be the "Soccer and the City" gala on March 3. That promises to be an especially fun night, and I'm hoping to be able to get a few photos and some more good event content for the blog there. In the mean time, I'll be posting more general obersvations on the game and my evolution as a fan, and more in my series of posts on soccer terminology for the benefit of newer American fans that are just starting to embrace the sport the way I am.
Photos that do not include me were taken by myself. Related photos where I appear along with Orlando City players were taken by Trace Trylko of the UCF Knightline Podcast.