- Jon Lorentz
Public meetings about soccer wouldn’t feel right without drumming, chanting, cheering, clapping, flag waving, rib eating and beer drinking.
And this was in the afternoon. Early afternoon.
Upwards of 100 Orlando City Lions supporters filled the downtown Mojo Bar & Grill on Thursday, March 1, to greet the head honcho of Major League Soccer, Commissioner Don Garber, who showed up for a town hall-style meeting to discuss the possibility of bringing the squad into the MLS.
The Lions held their first game in Orlando in 2011, and the team currently plays at the city’s Citrus Bowl arena to crowds of around 5,500. A move to the MLS would raise the stature of the team and make it more attractive for future players. For Orlando, it would mean a high-profile sports draw in addition to the Magic – one that capitalizes on the growing popularity of soccer in the United States.
“Orlando wasn’t on our list. It is on our list now,” Garber told supporters, who packed both levels of the bar. They hung a banner from a railing on the second floor that read “We Ready Garber” and wore “orl (heart symbol) mls.”
Nearing the start of their second season, Orlando City Lions play in the United Soccer Leagues Pro, or USL, which is roughly equivalent to the minors in baseball.
Garber, who filled the top MLS post in 1999 after 16 years with the National Football League, said Orlando is a good city to do business in, citing the new Amway Center as evidence and highlighting the well-run NBA All-Star game weekend in February.
“There’s changing demographics here,” he said. There’s a lot of young people who grew up with the game and are driving our fan base.”
But he was also candid about certain obstacles facing Orlando City. The team would probably need to find a new-and-improved stadium, Garber said. He also told Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer earlier in the day that average attendance at the team’s games would have to rise to about 10,000 to make a move to the MLS a possibility. And there are already other Florida markets that could host MLS teams, like Miami or Tampa.
“I would say we are at ground zero,” Garber said. Though he met with Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs on Thursday, “All we did was say hello.”
Despite the uncertainty, the mood was highly optimistic, even celebratory. “We see City in the MLS, in the MLS, in the MLS!” chanted the crowd over the rhythmic beats of a marching drum. They flung purple streamers down from the upper level. When Garber mentioned “Miami,” they booed.
Ahmed Kayad, a 19-year-old student at Valencia College, says he thinks there is a “good possibility” the Lions will make it into the MLS. “A year ago we just started out, how far we’ve come in a year is great.”
Greg Pane, a 27-year-old from Apopka, manages the social media websites for the Ruckus supporters. He says Orlando City soccer is drawing in new fans, even those who weren’t previously interested in the sport.
“There’s a good 20 percent of the people who never watched soccer before,” Pane says. “It caught wildfire.”
To judge by the numbers, Pane and Kayad aren’t wrong. Attendance rose from roughly 3,000 to more than 5,000, and about 11,000 fans came to the championship game in September against the Harrisburg City Islanders. As a market for the game, Orlando would hope to mimic the success of teams in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, where MLS has exploded in recent years and stadiums are filling up.
Phil Rawlins, Orlando City’s club president, moved the squad here from Austin, Texas, in 2010 with the express purpose of positioning it for a shot at the big leagues. Rawlins told the Orlando Sentinel last year that the team “couldn’t go any further in that marketplace.” He says that Garber’s visit means the Lions are heading in that direction.
“It’s a significant step in our process, a significant step in our journey,” he said.
At times, Thursday’s Q&A session had more in common with a chamber of commerce meeting than a town hall gathering. The chance to promote Orlando as a great city, not just a great soccer city, was not lost on the hopeful. Fans draped in jerseys and sipping lagers trucked out tourism statistics, praised the great weather in the area and mentioned that the ever-expanding University of Central Florida could boost the fan base.
“Can you tell me not what Orlando can do for MLS, but what MLS can do for Orlando?” one attendee confidently asked Garber.
“I’ll have to get back to you,” he responded.