Early on Sunday evening, 60,000 people from across Central Florida will converge upon the newly renovated Orlando Citrus Bowl for, you guessed it — or perhaps you didn’t — a soccer game.
The home opener for Orlando City Soccer Club against New York FC, a contest that will mark the debut of both franchises in Major League Soccer, was announced to be a sellout Monday morning.
The contest, which also will air nationally on ESPN2, is an exciting occasion for sports fans around the region. Yes, even for those who don’t care about soccer.
Old-timers from the area probably can remember a time when a professional sports franchise in Central Florida seemed like a pipe dream. Then along came the Orlando Magic.
Of course, there were doubts as to whether an area full of transplants from somewhere other than Orange County could sustain a pro sports franchise, but this region has demonstrated it will support the heck out of the Magic when they are winning — and probably support them more than they deserve when they aren’t.
And so, it is an exciting occasion to see Orlando — the county seat and West Orange’s neighbor to the east — add a second franchise.
Take it from someone who drives around between the eight high schools we cover more than I care to acknowledge: Orlando City — whose mascot is the Lions — has a presence in West Orange.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the purple car decals? They’re everywhere.
Soccer is a sport growing in popularity, thanks to the rise of the youth and high school game as well as the increasing ability to watch high-level soccer from overseas on television. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the FIFA video game, either.
Right here in West Orange, we have a program in the West Orange Warriors that has made an appearance in two of the past three state championships.
Now, none of that means the game the rest of the world refers to as football has any chance of usurping the football many Floridians know, love and worship, but this franchise does offer some things of which other sports franchises and high-profile college programs — American football included — would do well to take note.
If you’re not familiar, Orlando City actually has been around for three years. Previously, the Lions competed in the USL PRO league — America’s third-tier soccer league, a minor league.
Part of the reason the team is set to debut in America’s highest league is because they built popularity the old-fashioned way: They won. A lot.
The Lions won the USL PRO championship two out of the three years they were in the league.
The other reason we are where we are is because the franchise, under the guidance of president Phil Rawlins, has done a tremendous job of reaching out to fans and building a loyal following through a friendly, interactive approach to fan involvement. If you haven’t met and chatted with an Orlando City player, it’s probably because you haven’t tried.
Add to the equation that the upstart Lions have signed Kaká — who was, at one point, widely regarded as the best player in the world — and are making no secret of their playoff aspirations in their first year in the MLS, and we should be in store for a fun summer.
Unless you want to haggle with ticket scalpers, it’s too late for you to get tickets to Sunday’s game unless you’ve already got them, but that’s OK. There will be plenty of home games as Orlando City navigates its way through its inaugural MLS campaign.
Take my advice and gather the family to see what all the fuss is about.