Orlando City Soccer Club Poised for Take Off

Based on its strong management, player selection and advance ticket sales, Major League Soccer (MLS) newcomer Orlando City Soccer Club is well positioned to succeed on the pitch and in the stands. With over 40,000 tickets sold for its home opener on March 8, the purple clad crew already has excitement building in Orlando before its first MLS match against fellow expansion side New York City FC. Featuring midfield star Kaka, who has been named captain of the side, and a mix of youth and experience on its roster, President Phil Rawlins expects the club to contend for the playoffs from the start. The MLS expansion club benefits from an existing passionate fan base grown out of its four USL Pro league seasons and Orlando’s hunger for a spirited and competitive professional team after two years of Orlando Magic tanking.

To some degree, Orlando sports fans will compare their two major professional sports franchises. The DeVos family has always been willing to open their pocketbooks, whether it relates to free agency or local charities. The primary knock on the Magic owners is their detachment from Orlando. When speaking about the team, Dan DeVos, the chairman of the board of directors for the club, sounds like a dispassionate MBA discussing his next conference call. Similarly, Jacque Vaughn, the recently deposed coach, had an air of detachment in his sideline demeanor. The Orlando City president and coach are a study in contrasts. President Phil Rawlins is engaged and optimistic, with no fear of using the word “playoffs” in connection with his club. Coach Adrian Heath has already built a culture of success at the USL Pro level, and plies his trade with blue-collar grit and toughness. Fans will not have to guess about their expectations for the club or have concerns about extended rebuilding.

The Lions brand of soccer under Heath is uptempo, with quick ball movements and physical play. The team filled out the side to reflect Heath’s desire to play all out. According to an interview with Mlssoccer.com, the coach sees his team playing a style similar to Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. Chris Whelan of Fansided only gave Orlando City a B- for its expansion draft selections, but did note that the club selected players to fit its system. No doubt fans will be appreciative of management following a plan instead of the preferences of the assembled punditry.

The biggest star of the Orlando City show will be Kaka, the Brazilian with experience at the highest levels of the international game. Quite a bit rides on Kaka’s shoulders. In addition to being the leader and captain on the pitch, he will be the face of the franchise and ambassador for the sport in American football mad Central Florida. In order for the MLS launch to get off the ground, Kaka will need to be the booster rocket.

The side includes 16 players under 25 years of age (and six teenagers), including Cyle Larin of University of Connecticut, who was selected first overall by the Lions in the Super Draft. Heath and Kaka will need to be patient with the youngsters as they adjust to life in MLS and Central Florida. Given the overall youthfulness of the squad and the summer heat in Central Florida, Heath’s uptempo style could become a nightmare for opponents unaccustomed to unrelenting heat and humidity, even in the evening. The Lions will probably be a tough out on their home turf, even in their inaugural MLS season.

The club reports season ticket sales exceed 12,000. Playing in the Orlando Citrus Bowl this season in anticipation of its own stadium being completed for use in the 2016 season, the club hopes to achieve a crowd of 65,000 for the opener against its expansion rival. Even if cooler temperatures still prevail, Orlando should be hot for its MLS take off.

Image courtesy of Daniel Ruyter

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