Orlando City SC (OCSC) began play in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2015 after four seasons toiling in the relative obscurity of the wild west that is lower division soccer in the United States. At the very same time New York City FC (NYCFC) began play in MLS thanks to a $100 million check cut by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi who owns Manchester City FC of England (full disclosure here – I’m a lifelong Manchester City fan, have written an ebook about the club and manage Vox Media’s Manchester City fan site). Orlando City SC continued it’s traditions from the lower divisions maintaining the same colors, kit look, front office staff and fan groups. New York on the hand adopted Manchester City’s colors, were managed by the executives who run the English club and even started its first season without marque signing Frank Lampard because Manchester City still needed him in the Premier League.
Friday night in front of a national TV audience on UniMas, the Lions travel to Yankee Stadium to face NYCFC. Last season, these new rivals the latest in a long list of sports rivalries between New York and Florida met three times. Each team won one meeting while drawing the inaugural game for both sides 1-1 on March 8, 2015 in front of a sellout crowd at the Citrus Bowl. Tomorrow’s meeting will be critical for Orlando who underwhelmed during a season opening two-game homestand drawing twice against perceived inferior opposition.
The mantra from Orlando supporters for this rivalry is “built not bought,” and with the support to back it up, the Lions have been a smashing success in MLS. Unlike New York, Orlando and every other new MLS expansion city (most notably Miami who once had an MLS team that played in Fort Lauderdale but we don’t need to go down that road now) was required to have a solid plan to build a stadium in place before being admitted to the league. Orlando’s new facility will open next season, while NYCFC is allowed to toil in Yankee Stadium on a pitch unsuited for soccer for as long as it apparently wants. Never in the “MLS 2.0” era which began in 2007 have so many precedents been broken for one team in one market – but is after all New York and they tend to be able to make their own rules.
It should be noted that Orlando City itself paid a hefty fee reportedly in the neighborhood of $75 million to join MLS and did have to take on more investment that might change the nature of the club in due time to make the jump. We’ve already seen some of this play out as club stalwarts like Ian Fuller have moved on to other locales this past offseason. But still the fundamental feel of Orlando City SC remains now true to its humble origins.
But for fans the narrative is simple – Orlando City with a youth setup, long-standing supporters base, reserve team and new women’s side is a real football club while NYCFC is a bought entity, a completely new club or dare we say sports “franchise” which is language not used in the soccer world except in condescending ways. For supporters this rivalry is real – expansion cousins with contrasting origins and different world views. Friday night’s showdown will be fun for multiple reasons.