ORLANDO, Fla. – The MLS spotlight is focused squarely on Orlando City SC this week as the Lions host the 2019 All-Star Game presented by Target Wednesday (8 PM ET | FS1, UniMás, TVAS, TSN 1/4/5) and its accompanying festivities.
For club CEO Alex Leitão, there’s a satisfying symmetry to that.
“I feel like it’s a cycle that ends with this event,” Leitão said at the start of an in-depth conversation with MLSsoccer.com at Exploria Stadium Tuesday. “It was six years ago during an All-Star [week] in Kansas where we were there pitching ourselves to be the [next] expansion franchise.
“Six years later, doing what we are doing here, and looking at what we are looking [at] in terms of having the entire city breathing and talking about soccer, it’s phenomenal for us.”
Leitão isn’t making the case, not yet at least. But one could argue that in many ways, OCSC have been a model club over the past five years. Orlando’s CEO proudly reels off the completed items on the Lions’ to-do list:
- Won an MLS expansion slot and wove themselves into their city’s sporting fabric.
- Signed World Cup-, UEFA Champions League- and Ballon d’or-winning superstar Kaká.
- Founded an NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, and acquired stars Alex Morgan and Marta.
- Planned, designed and built a noisy, privately-financed, soccer-specific stadium near downtown.
- Built an academy system and USL second team.
- Planned, designed and built a new training facility for their men’s teams and a renovation of their existing one at Sylvan Lake Park for the Pride.
The problem for Orlando – and it’s a big one – is that the list is decidedly light in terms of on-field accomplishments. In fact, the club has backslid steadily since falling just one standings place short of MLS Cup Playoffs qualification in their 2015 expansion campaign, drifting to eighth, then 10th, then 11th-place finishes in the seasons since.
They’re now on their fourth head coach, and just one player, Cristian Higuita, remains from MLS year one. Those struggles have driven their large, passionate purple fanbase to distraction, and made all those structural achievements look a good deal less impressive. For a club that considers itself to be anchored on a fan-centric identity, that stings.
At present Orlando sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 26 points from 23 games and a 7-11-5 record, facing a steep road to haul themselves into their first postseason appearance.
“They have to see that we are trying,” Leitão said. “I want to see Orlando City playing good soccer. Of course we need more consistency, [there’ve been] a lot of ups and downs during the season, but I feel like we are playing good soccer, and I feel like the fans understand that and are seeing that, so they see that we are improving, they see that there are hopes for the near future that we deliver what they are looking for.
“Look, I was born in this game,” the Brazilian later added. “So I suffer, I feel the pain when results don’t come and I don’t think this is a bad thing. And the reason is because I was born with a ball, and this is what happens in my country.”
Leitão knows it will take results, not words, to convince supporters fresh optimism is warranted. With his hand-picked choices in place in head coach James O’Connor and EVP of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi, who arrived from FC Dallas in December, he maintains the Lions are on an upward trajectory.
Muzzi, a former player agent with an extensive network in Latin America, seeks to craft a central Florida-flavored version of the setup that’s made FCD a wellspring of young talent as well as a consistent contender in the Western Conference, consolidating the Lions’ Development Academy programs at the new training ground at Osceola Heritage Park and ramping up scouting identification for potential Homegrown Players.
“We needed somebody with experience. We didn’t want to start over,” explained Leitão, who arrived in 2015 from the Brazilian branch of global sports and entertainment agency Octagon. “I have 100% full trust in him.”
A Lions player during their pre-MLS days, O’Connor was hired from USL side and former OCSC affiliate Louisville City a year ago after leading that club to the second-division title in 2017. Though his MLS results have been a mixed bag thus far, he’s steered Orlando into the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup and has impressed his superiors with a prodigious work ethic.
But those fans are expectant, and Leitão and majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva did not hesitate to part company with his predecessors Adrian Heath and Jason Kreis. The sense of impatience around the club is probably aggravated by the rapid success of their Southern rivals Atlanta United, who the Lions have yet to defeat on the field (they’ll get their next chance on home soil in the Open Cup semis next week).
Leitão sounds uninterested in extended comparisons to the Five Stripes.
“Atlanta, in my opinion, honestly, they play at the [NFL] Falcons’ stadium. If I picked $200 million from this stadium to [spend on] players, I could do it much better, for sure,” he said when asked about ATLUTD’s impact on a rapidly-evolving MLS.
“And there are other clubs that are still playing in other stadiums, not what we as a league believe would be the best – like what we have here, soccer-specific, natural grass. But again: directions and decisions that you make in terms of what you want to do in the medium and long-term, this is what we will continue to do.”
Can a club like Orlando still be considered a success without trophies and deep playoff runs? Can the Lions run with the herd in an increasingly cutthroat and well-heeled MLS?
“We want to succeed,” vowed Leitão. “And this is going to happen.”