Orlando City and MLS is a marriage that everyone wearing purple hopes is built to last. While the inaugural season is off to a rough start on the pitch, with the club sitting outside the playoffs at the quarter pole and a number of star players nursing injuries (GK Tally Hall, M Kevin Molino, D Aurelien Collin, and F Martin Paterson), there's one place the club is living up to the first year motto of "Defy Expectations." That is in the attendance figures.
Orlando City's first game against the other 2015 expansion side, NYCFC, tops the attendance charts for any MLS match this season at 62,510. And after five home matches, Orlando City SC still leads the Eastern Conference by a wide margin, boasting an average attendance of 36,911. The club has already announced that over 33,000 tickets have been sold for Sunday's match against the LA Galaxy. So the honeymoon blush is still on with all the home fans, both within the Supporter groups and in the "unaffiliated" sections of the stands beyond The Wall.
Part of what makes the club so popular is just the "shiny, shiny" factor. For many fans in the area that may not have been familiar with the club during its days of toiling in the relative obscurity of the USL Pro League, having an MLS club spring, fully formed, in the refurbished Citrus Bowl presents a new opportunity for live sports and great entertainment in the city. But Orlando City also taps into a cross-section of the population of the city that has felt under served for decades. Anyone who lives in Orlando for long realizes that for its size, the city boasts a robust and thriving expatriate population. Europeans, South Americans, Australians, Middle Easterners, and denizens from all parts of Asia call Orlando home. And in nearly every one of those home countries, the most popular sport is soccer, or the game that everyone else calls football.
Soccer has also quietly and subtly become the number one youth sport in the USA. When baby boomers were kids, everyone played little league baseball. By the time Generation X was growing up, little league was competing with pee wee football and youth soccer. And by the time the millennial generation were involved in youth sports, soccer had clearly taken the crown. As the younger generation become adults and start wanting to do adult things like get season tickets for a sports club, the country's top soccer league ranks very high on their wish list. With a metro area that has an average age of around 34 years, Orlando also hits the sweet spot in many ways for MLS, from its geographic proximity to international destinations to its reputation as a tourist mecca and its position as a top 20 national TV market.
Yet a third factor that has helped Orlando City have such a successful launch with fans is the exciting and enthusiastic tailgating. Walk around the dozens of parking lots before an Orlando City match and you will find hundreds of tents and grills and coolers and traditional tailgate games like cornhole and beer pong as fans await the start of a match. Supporter groups get opportunities to share stories about the glorious history of the club's minor league days with newly minted members, while independent fans talk about matchups with current MLS foes and discuss the happenings with International clubs they may follow as well. And then there are the groups like ours who do themed tailgates--but more about that in tomorrow's post!
All of these factors have helped Orlando City enjoy a popular and successful launch to their first MLS season in terms of filling the stands and keeping the fan base invigorated. The club have already sold out their stated allotment of season tickets, capped at 14,000 based on the size of the new soccer specific stadium that the club is building just east of the Amway Arena. And the club's ownership and front office must be commended for the way they have helped to make the inaugural season very special for the fans in terms of commemorative scarves, premium experiences, and great customer service. Investing money in the form of buying tickets to watch a team play is one thing, but the efforts of the club and its leadership have made it very easy for fans to invest our hearts in this organization as well.
The fan base is energized, excited, and strong now, for the club's honeymoon season in MLS is just under way. And for those of us who have followed the team for a while, the jump to MLS has been a bit of an adjustment--similar to jumping from the simple state of living together to the full commitment of being married. I think we all knew the competition would be tougher, the opposing players would be much more skilled, and the stakes would be much higher playing in MLS than in USL Pro. But I truly believe that there was a part of many of us who believed that we would step into the new league and dominate it in the same way we dominated USL Pro for the last four seasons.
The road is proving more difficult than we expected, and the challenge now is to keep watching for incremental signs of success on the pitch. As we watch young players gain more confidence and earn more minutes and create more chances and take more shots, we'll have to celebrate all those accomplishments along the way as signs of better things yet to come.
"Defy Expectations" is the motto, and in MLS the expectations for expansion teams are traditionally pretty low. But as of today Orlando City still sits a mere 2-goal differential out of a playoff spot, something that could be changed after the end of the weekend if the team get their long sought-after home win on Sunday against the defending MLS champions LA Galaxy. The odds would say it's a long shot. Then again, I'm always partial to that famous Han Solo quip, "Never tell me the odds!"
Vamos Orlando! Let's go City! Rule the Galaxy!