Castillo: Orlando can become a US national team fortress

Clint Dempsey training for USMNT in Orlando, October 2017

As Friday’s USMNT World Cup Qualifying match vs. Panama draws near (7:30 pm ET, ESPN2, Univision, UDN), so amplifies the chatter about Orlando as a major venue for the US. Amping things up, of course, are the stakes of this match – it’s pretty much a must-win. Just look at the stats from ESPN’s Paul Carr:

So with the chatter around Orlando running up to the match, could Orlando show up, Columbus-like, as a cradle for USMNT in the future? Okay, actually, I heard someone (maybe only half-seriously) posit the question: “Is Orlando the new Columbus?” Is this a city whose soccer madness, maybe previously underestimated, will catapult it into the permanent circuit of places where the USMNT can succeed, backed by a fortress of fans?

Obviously there are a couple of reasons why Orlando will never be like Columbus, regarding physical challenges specifically. Of course there’s the weather – it’s going to be good and swampy, a condition with which most CONCACAF teams are familiar. It’s also a relatively short trip for any team in the region besides Canada; the US won’t get a leg up on opponents facing a serious travel slog, like it might in points further north.

Still, I’m not shy about my love for the overall Orlando match-day culture around soccer. (Check out my vlog from the opening of Orlando City Stadium earlier this year, and how it felt to stand with the throngs when things were really bumping.) Yes, Orlando City fans have gone through the emotional ringer lately, with their club team traversing some serious valleys, as well as the occasional small peak. But go back to the headier early days of the MLS season for proof. When Orlando City Stadium shows out at its best, the venue positively vibrates – literally, in places.

There’s no doubt, either, that the city turns out big for its club team – and the celebratory atmosphere for the USMNT appears to be following suit. Festivities are even happening at one of the most-vaunted cult-ish grocery store chains in the country (yes, again, I’m biased):

Add that to the fact that Orlando, as a destination, is not exactly a hard sell for visitors in general, and the match guarantees a packed house and a roaring, electric mood. Now, US fans just wait for the result – a win, there, in such a crucial match, and Orlando likely cements itself in men’s national-team mythology.