photo by Jon Lorentz/Orlando City SC
By FRANCO PANIZO
ORLANDO, Fla. — Hundreds of people clad in red and purple were on their feet. Some were banging drums, others were chanting and another group was cracking jokes at the referee who was officiating the match being played right in front of their eyes. The festive manner of all these fans was easy to detect to anyone within sight.
That was in the 89th minute with their hometown team down 2-0.
No, these fans were not wishing ill will on their team. Instead, they were joyous over the words they had heard earlier in the day and nothing would ruin their mood. Not even a shutout loss.
These fans in attendance were the members of Iron Lion Firm and the Ruckus, the two biggest supporters groups of USL Pro club Orlando City SC. They were witnessing their Lions fall at the hand of Swedish side BK Hacken in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic tournament on Thursday night, but that was an afterthought to what MLS commissioner Don Garber had told them earlier in the day when he met with them inside a local bar to discuss the possibility of expansion.
"It's not a matter of an if, but a when," Garber told the hundreds of Orlando City fans that squeezed inside the downtown Mojo Cajun Bar & Grill about their team's prospects of landing in MLS someday.
Garber echoed that sentiment as well as others to reporters following the event, including his admiration for the fans who welcomed him with digital billboards, chants with his name in them and a pair of Orlando-to-MLS banners.
One of those was the MLS logo in Orlando City colors with the letters "ORL" in place of "MLS". The other read "GARBER WE READY" and had a Lion standing on top of the logo of the New York Cosmos, the other team heavily linked with becoming MLS's 20th franchise.
"The fan base is rabid, man," Garber said after the event. "They are really passionate about their club and really want to see MLS as their next step, so it was a good productive couple of hours."
Garber said that aside from turnouts by Philadelphia Union supporters group Sons of Ben, the event in downtown Orlando was the largest fan rally he had seen from a team trying to come into MLS. Garber was happy to see such a large crowd on hand considering it was the afternoon of a workday, and he also said he was impressed by Orlando City's soccer development pyramid, which he claimed was close to the ones currently run by many MLS teams.
Areas where Garber said improvements could be made for the second-year club are in ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. In fact, Garber threw out a number that he said would really catch the league's attention.
"Hit 10,000 season tickets. They do that, boy, our eyes will be open in New York City," said Garber, who also stated Orlando City currently has sold 3,500.
Another item that needs to be addressed by Orlando City is the need for a soccer-specific stadium. The 2011 USL Pro champs currently play in the Citrus Bowl, a 70,000-seat stadium that opened in 1936.
Renovations for the cavernous stadium are a possibility and playing there in the short term is an option, but Orlando City ownership knows a soccer-specific stadium will be needed if the team is ever to go from viable expansion candidate to MLS franchise.
"We've said 2014, 2015 (as the target date to enter the league)," Orlando City owner and president Phil Rawlins told SBI exclusively. "We've got some things to do, we've got to work out a soccer-specific solution. We don't have to have a stadium finished by then but we need to know where we're going to be playing and where we're going to house Major League Soccer.
"That's the part we're going to work on next. That's the part that is open to discussion. We'll be engaging on that in the next few months."
Garber made sure to point out the team's need for a stadium solution as well.
"The No. 1 (requirement) in any expansion process is ownership, and we have that in place," said Garber. "No. 2 is the right market from the supporters and No. 3 is the facility. I think we have a good market here, we've got the right ownership group.
"We have not even begun the process on the facility, and until we're able to get further on that it will just force us to continue to work harder on the last piece of the puzzle."
Orlando was not the only Florida city Garber mentioned during his brief stay in the City Beautiful (as it is known to some). Garber talked about the need for the league to expand into the south and one other city he mentioned that is 'trying to make its way into the league' is Miami.
The South Florida city is the same city Garber spent Wednesday night in to watch Colombia take on Mexico in a friendly in front of more than 50,000 fans at Sun Life Stadium. It is the same city Garber said MLS needs to be in eventually.
"It's premature to talk about ownership or stadium or anything like that," said Garber when asked specifically about Miami. "Best thing I can say is we need to expand into Florida. There are lots of different places for us to do that. We've had teams in Miami and Tampa (Bay) in the past. Orlando had never been on our list in the past. It certainly is on our list now. Now the question is what is the best strategy and what's the best timing."
Garber, who said he did not have an answer as to when MLS would put a cap on expansion, also brought up how local rivalries, like the ones in the Pacific Northwest, help promote the sport. Orlando fans should not get their hopes up for a rivalry with western neighbor Tampa, however.
"We don't have any discussions going on there now," said Garber.
Orlando City will continue to have discussions with MLS, and while the club is still not a shoe in for the 20th spot in the league, its chances of one day being in the league look to be as bright as ever.
"It's been a really, really enjoyable day for us," Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath told SBI following his team's loss to BK Hacken. "I'm just happy (with) what we've got today. We've had the commissioner, and I think we've shown Orlando in a good light, and we move on from here."