It was an eventful and event-filled week for Orlando City, and things are shaping up as the 2018 season opener approaches. There was some bad news, some good news, and a fun event to cap off the week.
The Bad News
The club announced on Friday, February 9, that the Orlando Pride have waived Nickolette Driesse. Driesse was selected in the 2017 NWSL College Draft and made only four appearances and logging only 47 minutes in her rookie season. While the Pride have made some exciting off-season acquisitions, those come at a price for players that were already on the roster. Several players have been traded away, as we documented last week. And now we see a young player waived without really having had much time to prove her worth to the club. I think the waiver for the Pride and perhaps other teams in the league is exacerbated by the fact that the Boston Breakers have ceased operations and reduced the number of teams in the league that could absorb trades and provide opportunities for players that won't receive much opportunity to see the pitch.
Coach Tom Sermanni praised Driesse's work ethic in a statement the club released on Friday, saying she was diligent in training every day despite limited opportunities. Hopefully, this dedication to her craft will provide her with opportunities elsewhere, either in the country or internationally.
The Good News
There was news out this week that made this fan and observer of the club a little optimistic. The club published news on Wednesday, February 7, about Jose Aja's off-season. I have been an unapologetic critic of Aja throughout 2017 and at the end of last season, he was one of the players I suggested would make the club better if he didn't return for 2018. The news piece from the club indicated that at the end of last season the coaching staff made a challenge to Aja to prove whether he wanted to continue being a part of the club or not. Coach Jason Kreis said that the coaches had challenged Aja to assess his game and make some changes to deliver better results for 2018. And from the piece, it sounds like the player took that to heart.
Aja spent the off-season working with assistant coaches, video analysts, and even a coach to help him sharpen his mental approach to the game. To me, that says the young man is taking accountability for his future success, and I am encouraged and excited to see what results those efforts will gain him. As a fan, I hope it means better results for our club. In the long run, I sincerely hope that will be a boon for him on and off the pitch. I also want to congratulate the player on a personal milestone he achieved during the offseason. In December, Aja married his longtime girlfriend in a ceremony back home in Uruguay. The club reported that Aja's wife will be moving to Orlando in late February, so her presence by his side may also prove a benefit for Aja's game. Well played, sir! I wish the player and his wife a long life of happiness together.
The Fun News
The club held a fun event and an important event to help them re-connect with their fan base on Friday night. In addition to tinkering with features on the LionNation app during the off-season, the club conducted a social media campaign over the last couple of months to recruit fans to be a part of their 2018 marketing campaign, #FaceOfCity. On Friday, February 9, there was an event at the Lion's Pride Pub on Church Street in downtown Orlando. The event featured two Orlando City players, returning defender Scott Sutter and 2018 roster addition Justin Meram, and it was hosted by gameday pregame and broadcast personalities Miguel Gallardo, Mackenzie Thirkill, and Jeff Radcliffe. But a huge part of the event was recognition of many of the fans of the club who had responded to the social media campaign. Among them were members of The Wall, as well as season ticket holders from other parts of the stadium--men, women, and children alike.
Orlando City burst into the area consciousness in 2015, largely through a season-long media campaign that pictured passionate fans alongside passionate players on billboards, Lynx buses, and posters plastered across the city. It was a brilliant way of connecting the leadership and stars of the team with its most dedicated fans. In the last couple of years, the team has seemed to grow a bit distant from its fan base. The failure of the MLS side to reach the playoffs last year was a bitter disappointment to many fans, especially after the team started so strong at the beginning of the 2017 season.
While there's no way to reclaim lost opportunities from the past, the Face of a City event last night was a way to show that the club recognizes the power of the fanbase. When the two players got up to speak, that was apparent as well. Scott Sutter talked about how walking into Orlando City Stadium for last year's home opener was a reminder of some of the most exciting venues in Europe where he has played in his career. While it may not rival Camp Nou or Wembley Stadium, the fact that the stadium is purpose-built for soccer and has the first safe standing supporter section in North America really makes it feel like a cathedral of football. And Justin Meram talked about how much he hated playing against Orlando in the Lions home stadium. He referenced the noise and the passion of the fans as a factor that really plays on the focus and concentration of opponents.
As fans, I think we always want to feel like the venues where our team plays and where we go to support them are someplace special because of what match day means to us. But it's really wonderful to hear from the perspective of opposing players confirmation that our noise and our passion can have an impact on the play of both teams on the pitch. I attended last night's event in mostly match day attire, and it was great to connect with so many friends that I hadn't seen since the end of last year: Tracy and Lejuanna Willis, Tobin and Jessica Konecny, Sam Reda, Jim and Patty Floyd, and others. Below are some pictures I took at the event. On social media, there should also be a picture out there somewhere that the Heineken promotional team took with me, as they seemed to be fans of the hat.