ORLANDO, Fla.—There is no talk of tactics and injuries this week. No discussion of how Orlando City SC will field a team for Wednesday’s US Open Cup game at Jacksonville and prepare for the return to MLS action with the visit of San Jose on Saturday. No real acknowledgement of soccer in any meaningful way.
This is not business as usual. Games will certainly go ahead, but the regular sense of occasion and team-oriented activities will be missing; torn away – at least for the time being – by what happened early Sunday morning at Pulse nightclub less than three miles from Camping World Stadium and barely two from the team’s offices. As described in the Orlando Sentinel, a man armed with an automatic rifle entered the gay nightclub and started shooting. Forty-nine people were killed and dozens more injured before police shot the suspect, Omar Mateen, dead. It was the worst mass shooting ever on American soil, and the worst terrorist attack in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
Amid all the grief and suffering in Central Florida, the need to rally around a community in pain is all that really matters right now. Thus, there is a very different feel and atmosphere around Orlando City this week.
"In times like this, the club is the family."
—Phil Rawlins, owner, Orlando City SC
The club’s open letter to the community on Monday set out a respectful agenda for Orlando City doing what it can to try and help in the healing process.
The letter said there will be none of the usual talk of supporting the team and promoting the games in the normal way. The only images used will be black and white, and that somber, low-key tone will be maintained in all communications, with the ultimate aim of making Saturday’s game about supporting the community more than the team.
“It has been a tough 24 hours and I think it will be even tougher as we get towards the weekend,” Orlando City SC owner Phil Rawlins told MLSsoccer.com. “As we get the first of the funerals and other events of that nature, it is going to hit us even harder. This is something that has affected everyone in our staff and our community and it is a dilemma for us.
“We have to prepare for a big home game on Saturday, and for other games involving Orlando City B and Orlando Pride. They are going ahead, and it is the right thing to do because we can be a part of the healing process. But it is going to be very hard for all concerned.”
Rawlins said that – like the city as a whole – the franchise has been rocked to its core by the shooting, and there has been a huge outpouring of grief from within both the playing staff and front office.
In some ways, Orlando City Soccer Club has become an all-inclusive rallying point for the community in general, a standard bearer for diversity and harmony, through both the men’s and women’s teams and the Orlando City Foundation, which has quickly become synonymous with the caring, charitable face of The City Beautiful.
“We think it will be time to bring the community together, to be a force for good and for healing.”
And the franchise is deeply affected by the air of surreal anguish that hangs over the whole of Central Florida, and over a city now irrevocably linked with one of the most evil acts of recent years.
“It has touched everyone; not just the front office and Foundation staff, but the players and coaches alike, through all the teams,” Rawlins said. “Pretty much as things happened, we were getting messages about wanting to come together. We had an informal meeting of players and staff on Sunday evening, to get together as a group and be at one with our own people.
“We sometimes forget we have a lot of young people in our organization, and they don’t have family living close by and, in times like this, the club is the family, for the players and staff. The front office, in particular, is devastated by what’s happened, and is struggling to come to terms with it.”
Many of the players have taken to social media to express their feelings and support for the victims and their families, with the likes of Kaká, Seb Hines, Tommy Redding, David Mateos, coach Rob Valentino and many others all sounding out grief-stricken notes.
Many emotions hit me after hearing this terrible news. Disgust, anger, fear, sadness etc. Our outlook on human life has become tainted...— Tommy Redding (@Tommy_Redding29) June 12, 2016
It has been an immensely painful time to be in what is normally one of the happiest places on earth. But, with the community coming together with a sense of solidarity and humanity, from the mayor down to the emergency services and the thousands who have turned out to give blood, hand out water, and support those doing the hardest of jobs, there is also the beginning of a sense of bonding among city residents. And Orlando City hope to have a significant part in that all week.
“We are working on plans for the weekend,” Rawlins said. “We are trying to put ourselves in the minds of people six or seven days ahead of where we are now, trying to figure out how best to help.
“We think it will be time to bring the community together, to be a force for good and for healing, to pay tribute to the victims, to their families and to the first responders, who have done such a marvelous job.”
“It is the right thing to do, because we can be a part of the healing process. But it is going to be very hard for all concerned.”
The club takes great care to point out this is not about Orlando City Soccer Club so much as the whole of Orlando’s sporting community coming together.
“We have reached out to all the sports franchises in the city, so it is not just about Orlando City,” Rawlins added. “This will be an effort from all the pro teams in our community, to show support for the city – our city – that this is who we really are.”
For Rawlins, it is disturbing in the extreme to have such senseless acts back on his doorstep, especially in a place known for family entertainment as well as thriving ethnic and LGBT communities.
“We can’t talk about games at a time like this, but we can certainly go ahead and prepare for them,” he said. “We have to have a mark of respect about everything we do. But, most importantly, we have to go ahead with things. We can’t give in to these evil people. We have to show them who we really are.”