A Magic Kingdom? Why Orlando is ready to be the USMNT's new Columbus

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

A new hotbed of American soccer culture has a stadium worthy of being the U.S.' go-to venue.

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ORLANDO, Fla. – The office was about a half-mile away from where the U.S. men’s national team will step onto the field Friday night, and it had a broken air conditioner and just one copy machine.

In the window was a sign that had images of a globe and a coffee mug, and inside the building, 10 volunteers worked to bring an event called the World Cup to Orlando. Some of them didn’t even know what the tournament was when they signed up to help.

Nearly three decades after that group first formed, the city has a chance to essentially reverse that task. Instead of bringing the World Cup to Orlando, fans would like to help send the U.S. men’s national team to the sport’s biggest tournament.

A victory Friday night over Panama at Orlando City Stadium in a must-win qualifier would be a massive step in that direction.

The city’s understanding of soccer has totally changed since it put a soccer ball tarp on top of city hall and partied with the Dutch, Belgian, Irish, Moroccan and Mexican fans that invaded the City Beautiful for the World Cup in 1994. The vision of former Orlando City president and owner Phil Rawlins brought soccer to Orlando in 2010. The goal was to turn the Central Florida city into an American soccer mecca and an outpost of MLS in the Southeast, a region where the league had no presence since contracting the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2002.

The city is now decked in purple, a place where you can’t go into a restaurant or bar on an MLS game day without knowing Orlando City is the hottest ticket in town.

“I was thinking back to some of the origins of when they came and I was immediately sold on Orlando being a soccer city,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told FourFourTwo USA, “but I can’t in any stretch of the imagination suggest that I thought it would take hold the way it has. Orlando City has really done a great job of being a part of the community. … We think we are the soccer capital of the Southeast U.S.”

Building a new mecca

The city’s new soccer-specific stadium, privately financed by Orlando City owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, is a few blocks west of downtown and a short walk past the Orlando Magic’s home, the Amway Center. It rises up above the blocks in the Parramore neighborhood, with images of players from both Orlando City and the club’s NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, staring back down Church Street as you approach the building from downtown.

In its opening season, the stadium has become a secure home for both clubs, known as one of the most difficult environments in which to play in MLS. The crowd is not exactly welcoming to visiting teams, from a tunnel that houses graffiti meant to intimidate the away sides to a crowd that’s not afraid to let them hear it. Orlando City CEO Alex Leitao said the stadium was designed from the very first architectural concepts to, “create an atmosphere the fans would love, our players would love, and the opponents don’t.”

It’s an environment club officials hope will be replicated on Friday to ensure the city becomes a permanent part of the rotation for U.S. national team games, and maybe the new Columbus for the U.S.’ biggest game in every qualifying cycle.

“I would love that to happen,” Leitao said. “It’s the first time ever the team is playing here in Orlando, so we will see on Friday if we can replicate the atmosphere when Orlando City plays here. The stadium has all the characteristics needed to create an atmosphere to get three points. I really hope that happens … [If we] have the entire stadium supporting the U.S. and we recreate the [MLS] atmosphere, I’m sure they’ll come again.”

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Dyer said he believes Orlando, which is among the final host cities in the U.S. joint World Cup bid, provides a unique opportunity as a host venue. It’s a destination U.S. fans will want to book for national team games.

“We’re equipped and have the enthusiasm and we’re a travel destination ...,” Dyer said. “ We also have the advantage of a stadium that seats 27,000 and a stadium that seats 60,000 within a half a mile of each other, both in downtown Orlando. We can super-size or regular size.”

A success at the grassroots

It may have taken the vision of Rawlins and the support of the political establishment, but the soccer culture in Orlando was built on the backs of the fans.

In town hall meetings and local legislature votes, fans showed up in droves to support the initiative that brought MLS to Orlando. Their loud presence convinced the politicians there was enough support in the city to back the movement, and the passion of the supporters’ groups – they bounced on the small stands at Disney during the USL days, when Orlando City dominated the lower division – started to convert non-soccer fans in Orlando into people who eventually packed 62,000-plus in the Citrus Bowl on the opening day of the 2015 MLS season.

Those are the same fans that now make up The Wall in the Orlando City Stadium, a safe-standing section that makes few visiting teams feel safe. In The Wall, the chants are sometimes crude, the fans never sit, the purple smoke wafts skyward and the noise is up there with nearly any other stadium in MLS. It is all about passion – and intimidation.

One of the supporters in that Wall is Sean Levy, 31, who returned to his home city after falling in love with the beautiful game during the 2014 World Cup while living in Phoenix. About five months ago, Levy took over the Orlando chapter of the American Outlaws, and his days this week have been spent preparing for Friday’s big game. On Sunday, he was finishing the tifo that will hang at the game before kickoff. On Tuesday, he was at the stadium testing it. By Wednesday he had moved on to preparing the AO pregame party.

Coming full circle, the party will be held at the same Church Street Station that was known as party central for those visiting fans during the World Cup 23 years ago. The festivities on Thursday will take over an entire block of the city.

Levy is still shocked by what he discovered when he moved back home a few years ago. Every other car had an Orlando City sticker. The downtown area was covered in purple on game days. Friends who were once diehard Orlando Magic fans now ditched NBA games for MLS ones when there was a conflict.

The Orlando AO chapter is the second-biggest in the state of Florida, a few hundred strong. It will likely be joined by fans traveling to the city from around the country, as well as by some Orlando City fans who will venture into the loudest section in the stadium. Levy said he believes the stadium will provide a true home-field advantage that may stand in contrast to the controversy and debate that started after a rather vocal Costa Rican contingent made itself known at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., in the U.S.’ loss in September.

Levy believes this city will leave a lasting impression on the American players – and on the powers that be in U.S. Soccer.

“Due to how big this game is for us, we win and we’re in, if we don’t, we’re out,” Levy said. “This is a must-win game. I think we can bring the same atmosphere as an OC game. That’s what I’m trying for.”

Levy paused briefly and repeated a question he had been asked a few minutes before.

“So, can Orlando be that new city for the U.S. team?” he repeated. “Yes, without a doubt.”

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