ORLANDO, Fla. – More than 1,000 purple-clad people gathered on Church Street outside the Cheyenne Saloon on Tuesday night, just blocks from where ground will eventually be broken for a new stadium. By fire marshal’s decree, they couldn’t legally enter the building.
Inside the old hall – decked out in acres of purple for the event – fans young and old packed every nook and cranny, purple beer flowing while the Orlando City SC’s hardcore support made the ground-floor stage bounce along with their merriment and filled the air with songs driven on by a raucous percussion section.
Finally, after much fanfare, MLS Commissioner Don Garber finally let those in attendance in on the worst-kept secret in MLS, officially christening Orlando City SC as MLS’ 11th expansion franchise in 10 years and starting the countdown to 2015, when both they and New York City FC will enter the league.
Nearly 12 years after MLS left Florida, Orlando welcomed top-tier soccer back to the Sunshine State with a celebration that made expansion success seem like the expectation rather than the exception.
“It feels absolutely fantastic. It just couldn’t feel any better right now,” Orlando City president Phil Rawlins told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s a great celebration. I’m delighted for the fans. I’m delighted for the city of Orlando and Central Florida. The whole community has rallied behind us since the first day we got here. …
"Tonight is all about them, all about the fans enjoying themselves and enjoying the fact that we’re here – No. 21 ready for MLS and ready for 2015.”
More than a year ago, Garber told a gathering of Orlando supporters that it was a matter of when and not if the city received a franchise. On Tuesday, he made good on that promise, delivering the final confirmation after months of work came to fruition in October when the city and county approved funding for a new stadium.
And although everyone in the building – and throughout MLS fandom, for that matter – knew what was coming, it didn’t make the culmination of a dream any less extraordinary.
“These events become the worst-kept secrets in sports,” Garber said. “Everybody knows what’s happening, but when you’re actually here and you’ve worked so hard to make something like this happen … it really is special.
"These are the moments for all of us who work for MLS that kind of make it all worth it. Every day you’re slugging away, dealing with all the things you’ve got to deal with, then every now and again you take a step back and say, ‘Man, this is pretty cool.’”
For majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva, cool only began to describe the night that made all the hard work – and significant financial investment – worth it.
His facial expression when Garber said the magic words revealed just how much the moment meant to a man who began building his own fortune at the same time MLS took its first steps and belied his hope that the franchise can represent more than soccer in his adopted community.
“When MLS was born, I was also born from a business perspective,” da Silva said. “Today I am able to join in this family. … We understand that Orlando City can be much more than a team. It can be something that will make [the people of this city] proud. We want to inspire all of our supporters.”
And like they’ve done as USL PRO juggernauts, a position they’ll attempt to hold onto for one more season, Orlando City expect to do that partly by winning and winning quickly.
“We’ve always set our own standards, set our bar high. We’ll continue to deliver against that,” Rawlins said. “We want to be a competitive MLS franchise. We’ve not come just to play, we’ve come to win. We’ve come to be a part of this great league, to take it forward and represent the whole of Florida in MLS and the Southeast.”
If their rapid ascent from minor to major league is any indication – both Rawlins and da Silva emphasized the club plans to have a “special” Designated Player in year one – don’t bet against Orlando City doing just that.
For one night at least, Rawlins and the purple-clad faithful that made all this possible flooded downtown in what amounted to a dress rehearsal for 2015. Come Wednesday there's no time to waste.
“The next 16 months are going to go by very very quickly,” he said.