For many soccer fans in this state, love for the game was acquired through attending lower division matches. That’s how Orlando City grew into an MLS giant, and that is the path Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Miami currently follow in their quest to gain new fans and grow the game in the markets they represent.
Saturday night, on the campus of Eastern Florida State College, Orlando City B began life in USL, the third division of American soccer and the place from which its parent club grew into behemoth. The Lions organization last season, wisely choose to create a reserve team in USL for 2016 and unlike many MLS clubs who have their reserve teams play in-market on practice fields or in virtually empty stadiums, Orlando City opted to place the club down the road in Brevard County. This helps to grow the overall catchment area for the parent club, while bringing pro soccer to an area that has previously supported amatuer soccer well and has the demographics and population to fit the USL model.
Titan Soccer Complex home of Eastern Florida State College’s soccer program was the venue for Orlando’s opening game with its “B” team in USL competition. The foe was a familiar one for Lions fans as the Wilmington Hammerheads a fierce rival when Orlando’s first team was in the USL came to town.
The Hammerheads boast several familiar names to those who follow lower division North American soccer including Goalkeeper Jon Smits, Ferrety Sousa and Justin Moose. Orlando’s B team features several familiar names, most notably Lewis Neal perhaps the closest thing the six-year old Lions organization has to a club legend and cult hero for the fans. Also on the OCSC B squad are top prospects like Connor Donovan and Hadji Berry as well as Bryan Rochez, a Honduran “designated player” at the MLS level who hasn’t acclimated quite as well to the league.
Orlando City B marries a top organization, a new market (Brevard County), a great little soccer facility and the fundamentals of grassroots soccer. The crowd in Melbourne was lively and loud making th the little venue which has a well-maintained grass pitch (the only truly proper pitch for a pro soccer team in this state in 2016) seem like a classic lower-division ground from England. Orlando City’s branding was in full effect throughout the facility with the familiar purple color and OCSC logo (except the letter OCB below the lion) in full evidence in various strategic locales at the park. The wind, rain and eventual lightning delay added to this feeling of an English ground placed and didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the game.
The Lions eventually fell 2-1 to Wilmington but the real winners were soccer, Brevard County, Titan Soccer Complex and Orlando City’s organization. The seriousness with which the organization promoted and branded the OCB event against demonstrates the strong culture and feel of professionalism that the club has developed. Many other professional organizations across the country would be wise to take notes.