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SIDELINE SCENE: MLS debut of Orlando City Soccer Club exciting for region
West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Jun. 19, 2014 4 years ago

World Cup highlights soccer's growth locally

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by: Steven Ryzewski Senior Sports Editor

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Peter Moore’s phone has been blowing up lately.

Since the 2014 World Cup started last week in Brazil, the director of boys soccer for Florida Rush Soccer — and also the boys varsity head coach at Ocoee High School — has been getting seemingly non-stop inquiries from parents who want to get their kids in the game.

It’s just one of many ways in which, every four years when the World Cup takes place, our traditionally football-crazy area goes crazy for the game that the rest of the world refers to as football.

Of course, it’s not simply a fleeting phenomena — the game is growing throughout Central Florida and in West Orange County.

Whether it’s participation in youth programs, an increased talent level in the prep game, fans flocking to local bars to watch games or the impending transition of Orlando’s minor league soccer franchise to Major League Soccer, the growth of the game locally is evident and Moore has the numbers to prove it.

“The Rush, which started nine years ago with probably 20 teams, is probably going to go on this year with over 35 teams,” Moore said. “We started with four fields and now we’re up to nine.”

Apparently, nine fields isn’t quite enough for the local youth soccer powerhouse. Moore said that as the program continues to grow it may have to look into additional fields and locations.

And the Rush is just one of several strong youth programs throughout the region. Collectively, those programs have had an effect beyond just the youth level, as the high school talent level has gone up — again with tangible results.

“I think, overall, the level [of play] has gone up,” Moore said. “Since the Rush has started, Ocoee has had a final four team [in the FHSAA state playoffs], West Orange has had a state final team.”

Though it continues to grow, youth soccer is no new phenomena — after all, the term “soccer mom” became a part of popular culture for good reason. Those youth soccer players grow up and often continue to follow the game. Polls by ESPN have shown that MLS and Major League Baseball are on par in popularity with younger demographics and millennials seem to embrace the game and its international influence.

Collectively, it makes for a winning combination for people like David Miller — proprietor of Hagan O’Reilly’s Pub in Winter Garden. This year’s World Cup is the second that Miller and his staff at Hagan’s have experienced since the restaurant opened its doors and, if it’s anything like the 2010 World Cup, it’ll be another welcome boon in business.

“We were very busy — it was standing room only,” Miller said. “As long as the U.S.A. and England and some of the major teams stay in … it’s probably a 30 to 40 percent boost in business.”

Miller, a soccer fan himself, has a unique view of the changing attitudes toward the world’s most popular sport here in West Orange County. Because of his establishment’s pub theme and décor — along with plenty of televisions and drink specials — it has become a popular location for locals to catch soccer games aside from the World Cup.

It’s not uncommon, Miller said, for a strong crowd to frequent Hagan’s on a Saturday morning to catch a prominent match between European clubs in one of the game’s more prestigious leagues. All in all, the local business owner seems to have his finger on the pulse of the growth of interest in the game and what it is about the soccer crowd that converts casual followers into fans.

“It’s gotten much more popular — especially [during] World Cup time,” Miller said. “We get a lot of people that just come because they know they want to be some place where it’s going to be excited — where people are going to be into it and the crowd is going to be cheering. …

“They want to be where people are having fun.”

It’s a similar theme to that of the growth in popularity of Orlando’s professional soccer team, the Orlando City Soccer Club.

The franchise is currently playing its fourth season in the area and its final season before it transitions to the MLS in 2015. Part of the club’s meteoric rise in fan interest — specifically for a minor-league franchise — has been the atmosphere at the games. The atmosphere reached new heights when Orlando City hosted last year’s USL PRO Championship, which the club won, in front of a league-record crowd of more than 20,000 spectators.

The presence of what is soon to be a team in the United State’s premiere soccer league — along with plans for a sparkling, brand new stadium for the club in downtown Orlando in 2016 — is something Moore believes will continue to have reverberations throughout the region.

“That’s going to just spur the growth even further,” Moore said. “I strongly believe that when the MLS first formed that they should have put a team in Orlando and not in Tampa or Miami because of the radius they could have.”

As of Tuesday’s publication date, viewership for this year’s World Cup has been setting records for soccer in this country. West Orange County is included in the Orlando market, which according to a tweet Tuesday morning from ESPN, is one of the five strongest markets so far (along with Washington D.C., San Francisco, Boston and New York).

The game is growing, with the excitement of Team USA’s thrilling victory over Ghana on Monday — a game whose deciding goal came on an assist from Graham Zusi, a Longwood native and Lake Brantley High School alumnus — only adding to it. It’s much to the liking of longtime soccer enthusiasts, people like Miller, who says he only has one complaint.

Says Miller with a smile, “I wish it was every summer.”

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