Can Orlando City Soccer re-capture a city?
Even after an offseason that saw the departure of USMNT budding star Darryl Dike, aging international star Nani, and the face of so many team promotions in Chris Mueller, what can the real expectations be? The 2022 season may be that chance.
I want to start out by saying first.....I am not a soccer expert. If you are looking for a deep dive in to the layout of the soccer-verse and how much better the game is internationally, how the transfer market works, etc. I am not your guy. But you know what I do understand? The city of Orlando and its love-hate relationship with its most competitive major league team.
Photo by: Greg Rhodes
And if you would have told me a decade ago that Orlando City would be:
in the MLS
back-to-back playoff appearances in their own state-of-the-art MLS stadium
purchased by one of the largest ownership groups to join the city in decades
And they still don't get featured on local sports radio or print even with the season right around the corner!? I wouldn't have believed it. I would have physically laughed in your face. The same team that was pushing to "Fill The Bowl" at the Citrus Bowl wouldn't be the #1 sports story in town while the Magic are pushing for the worst record in the NBA for a second year in a row? I just can't.
Well, it has been a tough decade outside of the last few seasons. Changes in ownership, a revolving door at manager, and at times just a really bad product on the pitch alienated a lot of die hard fans. And while attendance remained top 5 until the pandemic, a team making the playoffs in Florida should have been able to do better than 12th in attendance last season. A team that competed for a 2nd seed all season barely outdrew FC Dallas, who finished near the bottom of the league and missed the playoffs altogether. Once, what was a waiting list for season tickets has become a signup and purchase program. And once you get to that point, why would the local sports coverage focus on you? It isn't worth it to them if nobody wants to even go to the games. But more on that a bit later.
2022: The beginning
But what is different about 2022? Well to start, the Wilf family. The owners of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings matched socks back in July 2021 with the purchase of the same color schemed MLS franchise for a reported $450 million. That includes the stadium, practice facilities, both men and women franchises, and the minor league development team. And after watching the same ownership group invest over $450 million in a new palace of a facility in Minnesota, they have shown themselves as a group willing to open up the pocket book. And while it may not have been on star Darryl Dike, more on his financial implications next, it is the first step in proving yourself different from the previous ownership group which was reluctant to make big moves.
But "Big Moves" should include keeping a player like Darryl Dike, the breakout star of the US Mens National Team last year right? A player the fans had grown to love? A homegrown guy drafted out of Virginia 5th overall in the 2020 draft? Well, in the world of an international sport that isn't always how it works out. Sometimes a guy is worth more to you as a chip, and that is exactly what happened here with Orlando City receiving it's highest transfer fee to date at around $9.5 million dollars. And while not a big number compared to some of the other major leagues in the US, that is a high fee for an MLS franchise and really came important when it came to bringing back players like Rodrigo Schlegel, Mauricio Pereyra, and Alexandre Pato. All of whom are expected to see expanded roles this season after the team declined to bring back All-Star and captain Luis Nani.
photo by: Greg Rhodes
Wait Nani is gone!
Yeah, I know after all that talk about making big moves and I am just now getting to losing Nani. But if you are trying to get out of all the same old habits, bringing in former international stars for a retirement tour, some choices have to be made. And while Nani had a lot of great moments in Orlando, his best was behind him and with the highest contract on the team he took up a valuable designated player spot. A spot that will be taken by the teams biggest investment in it's on pitch future to date.
21 year-old Uruguayan forward Facundo Torres is an exciting young edition to the squad, showing glimpses of a future international star as a piece on Uruguay's national team and playing for Penarol club in Uruguay before the transfer. Orlando City paid a reported club record of $7.5 million for a transfer fee for a 4 year young player deal. If Torres can develop the way a lot of experts expect, he could be the face of a rising, perennial force in Orlando.
And don't discount the addition of forward Ercan Kara, another acquisition that is also a national team member. He played in the top league in Austria, Bundesliga, and some experience in the Champions League with his club team Rapid Vienna. To get that type of experienced player this early in his career, he's only 26, into the MLS speaks volumes about where the league and this team are at in the global view of the game in my opinion. A team that seemed hampered by injury and age late last season brings in youth and high level experience that not only sets up this season, but season to come.
Will that be enough to get the city on board?
And that is really the question. The team has done everything they can at this point. I listen to local talk radio every day. I tune in to the local sports television shows. I read the Orlando Sentinel. And you know what they all have in common? An obsession with the standard. They know the Magic and the NBA, so they talk the Magic and the NBA. They know the NFL, even though the city doesn't have an NFL team, so they talk the NFL. It's the south so even college football is a focus in the offseason before they talk MLS and Orlando City. It's the fans that need to demand better of the coverage of their team, it's the fans that need to tune in to your local sports avenues and demand coverage of their team. I've spoken with some of these guys that host the shows and the #1 reason I hear from them is that Orlando City doesn't move the needle, people don't tune in they tune out when the topic comes up. But I argue that if you were consistent with the coverage, a segment even, for one of only two major league teams in the city, and it would grow. But the city has to show it wants it, and this is the season that it comes to a head. This is the year now that we are *knocks-on-wood* done with the pandemic that fans need to pack the stands, the team needs to produce on the pitch, and the league needs to make this market the highlight it should be. Now is the time, with the Magic in a decade long rebuild, to take advantage of a city that gets behind a winner. Just ask UCF.
But what do you think? Tell me in the comments below if you have ever been to an Orlando City game or if you have ever even wanted to go to one. Will them winning make you want to? Thanks for reading and don't forget to subscribe below and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @mySportsFlorida.