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Cover 05/08/2013

Orlando City Soccer's goal rush

The Brit, the Brazilian and their (not so?) crazy scheme to make Orlando soccer capital of the Southeast

Photo: Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer, License: N/A

Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer

Photo: Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer, License: N/A

Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer

This wasn’t the season opener Phil Rawlins wanted.

Not this year, not with so much to prove. He wanted a showcase, a chance to show the media and city and county leaders and state legislators and the honchos at Major League Soccer that his stunningly successful United Soccer Leagues pro team, Orlando City Soccer Club, was ready for a new, $110 million downtown stadium, ready for throngs of cantankerous fans, ready for prime time.

Mother Nature is not cooperating.

From all directions on this Sunday evening, April 14, the Citrus Bowl is besieged by a mass of ominous, dark storm clouds. They bring with them periodic squalls of driving rain punctuated by frequent flashes of lightning and booms of thunder. It’s the kind of ferocious Florida thunderstorm that can be a thing of tranquil beauty, a reminder of how small we are. Today it’s just wreaking havoc.

The grass and dirt parking lots to the north and west of the stadium have been reduced to muck, the mud an inch deep in places. Tailgating has been canceled. The crowd is sparse, just thin handfuls here and there around the stadium’s lower rim. The Citrus Bowl can hold about 65,000 people. For today’s 6 p.m. match against the middling Rochester Rhinos, Orlando City’s official count is 6,351. That, to my eyes, is wildly optimistic.

To be fair, this is unusual. The Orlando City Lions are a very good team. In their first two seasons, they won one USL-Pro championship and another regular season crown. They’re atop the league standings for the nascent 2013 season and are riding an impressive 22-game home-unbeaten streak.

Concomitantly, their attendance is the best in the league – last season, the Lions averaged 6,900 fans per game. For the team’s next two home games, on April 19 and April 27, the Lions reported record crowds of 9,140 and 9,589, respectively.

What tonight’s crowd lacks in size it makes up for in vigor. Behind the Rhinos’ goal, there is – as there is every game – a raucous group of die-hards, maybe 150 strong. And they are a sight to behold. No matter how torrential the downpour, there they chanted and yelled and banged cowbells and set off hazy-orange smoke bombs and waved a giant Florida state flag. They were loud and obnoxious, zealous and devoted, the kind of fans you’d expect from the Barclays Premier League, not a minor-league match in Orlando.

The two largest of Orlando City’s supporter groups, as they’re called, are the Iron Lion Firm, the purple-shirted crew in Section 121, and the aptly named Ruckus in Section 119. I couldn’t tell which of the groups – maybe both – directed a chant of “You suck, asshole!” toward a Rochester player who’d aroused their ire. (A fellow journalist in the press box overlooking midfield tells me that last year, during a game against rival Tampa Bay, the die-hards erupted into the belligerent cry, “Fuck you, Tampa!”)

This is part and parcel of the Orlando soccer experience, oftentimes as engaging as the game itself. And while the enthusiasm of a few shouldn’t be mistaken for widespread support, it’s precisely this unbridled passion that makes Rawlins, the Orlando City founder and president, believe Orlando is ready for a Major League Soccer franchise – and has led area leaders, especially Mayor Buddy Dyer, to call for building yet another taxpayer-backed sports facility, alongside the $450 million Amway Center and forthcoming $175 million Citrus Bowl retrofit.

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