Boehm: Tribal Orlando gives All-Star reminder of the beautiful game's roots

ORLANDO, Fla. – Even on a weeknight, they waited out a lightning delay and endured hours of light but steady rain to pack into Exploria Stadium for a match that involved only one of their beloved Lions.

They ooohed and aaahed at the pregame pyrotechnics, then cheered for the superstars in the starting lineups, with the biggest roars for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the home club’s star Nani. The home of Orlando City SC is one of the loudest stadiums I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching a game in, and so it was again at kickoff on Wednesday night for the 2019 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target, testing the eardrums of the 25,527 in attendance.

Then OCSC’s purple-clad faithful really had some fun.

The boos were strongest in the north end, home of “The Wall,” the safe-standing supporters’ section, but they quickly cascaded around the venue, rising instantly whenever an Atlanta United player touched the ball. Atletico Madrid’s world-class talent was a joy to watch, but that hatred for the Five Stripes was something to behold as well.

“We know that the people sometimes can’t separate the passion,” chuckled ATLUTD defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. “We enjoy it and we laugh about it … it’s folklore, you know. It’s soccer. We don’t pay a lot of attention to that. We try to enjoy this experience, try to do our best.”

As Brad Guzan noted drily: “To be expected. Josef [Martinez] and I were having a laugh about it, it was good fun. Expected nothing less, to be honest.”

It didn’t matter that the five representatives from Orlando’s bitter Southern rivals were clad in the hosts’ colors on this night. And it surely was not lost on the Lions faithful that Guzan, Josef and LGP and will be back here in under a week’s time to battle in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal, their highest-stakes meeting yet (Tuesday, 7:30 pm ET | ESPN+).

That instinctive loyalty of club allegiance still came rushing to the fore, reminding everyone that for all the feel-good collegiality of All-Star week and the widespread adoration of megastars like Zlatan and Wayne Rooney and Carlos Vela, the driving force of Major League Soccer – just like most every league on earth – is the fans’ dedication to their teams, and their visceral disdain for the outsiders in opposing colors from other cities who face off with them week in, week out.

“I think they’re still training with our fitness coach. I don’t think they’ve finished yet,” joked Orlando and All-Stars coach James O’Connor after Atletico Madrid's 3-0 win. “No, look, it’s just friendly banter. Obviously massive game next week with the Open Cup semifinal. That’s obviously on the minds of all the players and supporters.

“I was joking with their players. They’re really good guys. We’re all together and we can enjoy the evening. But obviously next Tuesday we’ll be crossing swords. And I think it’s just friendly banter. There’s a healthy respect for both clubs. And there’s a healthy appetite for that game on Tuesday and it’s a game we’re all looking forward to.”

LA Galaxy midfielder Jonathan dos Santos was somewhat less impressed, though he used a question about it to tease Josef Martinez as the two stood side by side in the All-Stars’ locker room postgame.

“They deserve it, they deserve it,” he cracked in Spanish. “They should yell at them some more! In the end it really wasn’t the moment for it, we were living a celebration, we were a team despite the fact that they play next week against Atlanta. I didn’t like it. We spoke about it among ourselves, it doesn’t matter.”

There’s no one “right” way to host an All-Star Game, and fans are free to approach exhibition spectacles like Wednesday’s with whatever mindset they wish. But it was fitting that Orlando capped a half-week of hospitality with a vocal display of the proud tribalism that put their city on the soccer map, that so often makes their home games such wild affairs, that makes MLS games worth watching.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” said O’Connor. “It’s something the supporters have deserved … I’ve said many times we’ve got the best supporters in the league, and they’ve shown it again tonight. They’ve come in terrific numbers despite the difficult weather and stayed. For all the supporters, it’s a wonderful occasion.”

Orlando City have experienced a roller-coaster season, and frankly their hopes of clambering into the Eastern Conference playoff places look like a long shot at the moment. They’ll need their fans behind them to have any chance of doing so. But in the bigger picture, those supporters’ commitment to the Lions is the glue that binds the whole Orlando soccer story together, and I hope we get to see them do some more booing in even bigger moments in the days ahead.