For those of us who are native Floridians, one thing truly rankles: an outsider parachuting in and issuing a sweeping Edict About the State from on media high. Yuck. And Florida, for all its superficial weirdness, has always offered two key promises: on one hand, an utter escape from reality, whether by sheer geography or tourist-fantasia concoctions. On the other, though, it’s that of a clean slate, a place to start new and build.
That’s something that Orlando City SC have accomplished, and they proved it this weekend. What may have looked, when the team entered MLS in 2015, like a flash in the expansion pan has truly solidified into something with proper roots.
I wrote earlier this weekend about the omnipresence of City purple everywhere in the city itself. But Sunday's match day – home win aside – only solidified that, in a blur of waving flags and purple smoke, in a sell-out crowd some 25,527 strong.
Of course – and I say this as a native Floridian – the week offered a few amazingly surreal moments, in the way that only this state (plus the fun of watching this sport in this country) can. I visited Orlando City training on Friday before the match. That took place about 25 minutes north of town, in the exurb of Lake Mary, where down a nondescript public park road, Kaká ran through drills under what-is-winter sun. A few feet away, someone’s horses grazed behind a white fence.
The night before that, too, offered a few incredible-but-awww-worthy moments, too, when stars of OCSC and the Pride NWSL side took on a small army of children for charity. (Go look at a couple of photos here.) Fans showed up with drums and ready chants for that, too; any excuse to support, and to enjoy the new supporters’ section in Orlando City Stadium. That’s not really something you see every day in Madrid, let’s say.
That kind of accessibility – a vibe that the team stands for quality, but not haughtiness – means Purple Pride abounds throughout Central Florida. About an hour away, in Melbourne – the former home of Orlando City B, City's USL reserve side – supermarkets feature incredible displays like this:
In the shadow of the city’s downtown, where both the soccer teams and the Orlando Magic play, soccer insignia hangs everywhere. At the Harp and Celt on Saturday morning, during prime English Premiership-watching time, a couple people at the bar turned up to watch soccer not in Liverpool or Arsenal jerseys, but in Orlando City ones.
Saturday night’s fan pub crawl, too, subsumed seemingly all of downtown, too, an area usually known anyways for its loud nightlife and crowds. There was no distinction this time around between fringe-y soccer people and the rest of the district’s revelers; the Venn diagram made a circle.
Of course, though, one of the places in which the team’s commitment to the community came through most was in the shiny new stadium, one of the most hyped in the league's history. On Thursday we checked out The Wall in detail, the biggest supporters’ standing section in the league.
But other features linking club and community abounded. On a relatively light note, one hall-of-fame-esque wall facing the Church Street thoroughfare lists names in Society XXI, founding season-ticket members. Between queuing for food trucks and taking in DJs and goodies like free Slurpees, fans crowded around the window for snaps of their own names on display.
Nearby, an exterior wall of the venue commemorates the history of Parramore, the historic black community surrounding the stadium. And inside, of course, the team commemorates the tragedy that forever marked Orlando history – the Pulse nightclub shooting, turned into a living memorial via a bank of rainbow-colored seats.
A homage to the predominantly African-American Parramore neighborhood around the Orlando City Stadium. pic.twitter.com/fqpOkAuSnn— Christian Araos (@Christian_Araos) March 5, 2017
A serious core of Orlando’s fans have supported the team from its beginnings in USL, amid humbler digs. But for the many fans who have joined up along the ride, well, they’re not just there for flashy names, either. Someone with a pessimistic view might have expected things to go quiet after superstar Kaká left the game with an injury just minutes in.
Instead, the throngs got even louder. They roared for Cyle Larin, now a star to MLS fans, but a striker whose emergence at Orlando really helped showcase his prowess and make him feel like a local success story. The masses even hollered for Hadji Barry, a 2016 SuperDraft pick who’s only mainly collected minutes with the team’s USL side. But when he took the pitch at the 89th minute, guess what the crowds noted? His local connection. “U-C-F! U-C-F!” they shouted, nodding at the local state university at which Barry played.
Then, of course, there’s The Wall. We could wax poetic about it, or we could just look at the visuals, which do it better justice.
Filled to the brim and booming for a full 90-plus, it’s a crowning jewel in a venue for a city that’s more than proved it’s mad for its MLS team. With the players mad for their fans right back, Orlando’s home-field advantage looks poised to rattle every opponent slated to visit.
Anyone with Florida jokes, ignore that at your peril.