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Will Soccer catch fire in the USA?

22nd July 2015

As a sports fan in general and a lover of the beautiful game I am interested in the development of soccer in the USA, where the game finally seems to have laid lasting foundations. While on holiday in Florida earlier this month, in a pre planned bid to escape the routine of roller coasters and magic kingdoms, I bought tickets online to see Orlando City, in this their inaugural season in the MLS, play FC Dallas in the Citrus Bowl. So, this was my first MLS experience…how did it measure up to watching football in the Premiership, or for that matter the Irish League? Read on….

Each MLS team, or ‘franchise’ sets out to attract at least one big name star to build a team around and to go some way towards selling the tickets needed to make the league stack up financially. In Orlando’s case this is Kaka, Brazilian world cup winner and the 2007 Wold Player of the Year. Unfortunately for us Kaka was sent off (pretty unfairly it has to be stressed) the week before the Dallas game meaning that he was unavailable for our match. Still, we did have the promise of seeing Republic of Ireland central defender Sean St Ledger, more of that later, and a host of South American players. Our tickets cost just over $30 each - approximately £20, pretty good value for money for seats in a stadium small enough where all seats offer a decent view of the game. Ticket prices do rise to over $100 for more central seats and while our game was officially sold out, the upper tiers of the stadium remained closed for this game.

Match night fell on seventh day of our Florida holiday by which time we were well used to the storms which can disrupt any activity and so it was that the 7.30pm kick off was delayed until 8.10pm, allowing the lightning to pass before fans took their seats. After the natural fireworks it was time for the man made variety, which accompanied a stirring rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, just before kick off. 

In the absence of Kaka, Orlando offered very little up front and in the end Dallas won out comfortable 0-2 winners, a scoreline which bucked the trend of Orlando’s recent run up to that point which had involved 6 home matches undefeated. (They lost again this past weekend to New York Red Bulls - who ever thought I’d be checking Orlando scores on Twitter first thing on a Sunday morning?). Former Everton player Adrian Heath called the match with a welcome lack of spin - Orlando weren't good enough, didn't try hard enough and it ‘wasn’t good enough.’ Heath also had the honesty to substitute his son Harrison at half time, after Heath junior had been anonymous for 45 minutes. St Ledger was perhaps the home teams best player in the opening half but unfortunately dislocated his shoulder towards the end of the half. 

Dallas took the lead through a ‘PK’ - no one in the stands calls it a penalty. Orlando did think they had equalised early in the second half but the goal was called offside (it was) albeit with a linesman’s flag which literally took 20 seconds to appear, by which time the home side celebrations were well underway and the scoreboard had registered the equalizer. After Dallas doubled their lead Orlando got their own PK in the dying moments but Carlos Rivas typifyed his poor overall performance with a Chris Waddle style (he’s ballooned it’) effort. 

The football was not high quality on the night, but with key players missing that may be understandable. MLS teams are attracting big names even if they are in twilight of their careers. The Orlando fans generated a terrific atmosphere, with the section behind one goal given over to ‘The Wall’ which for 90 minutes kept up a drumbeat driven chant which at times was taken up by the rest of the stadium. It would have been interesting to see the crazy purple gang in full blown celebration mode if Orlando had taken a lead. 

There was dissatisfaction with some of the officials decision making, some justified, some typical of a home fans annoyance when his team is losing.  In the premiership this would have manifested with what you might call 'colourful language'; in the Citrus Bowl the crowd joined as one to chant ‘Ref You Suck / Ref You Suck…..’ I can't see that catching on at Solitude or White Hart Lane to be honest. 

American fans clearly regard the whole affair as an entertainment ‘event’ - constantly leaving their seats to buy over priced hot dogs, beers, peanuts. A significant number of fans also left the game early - though the delayed start may have been a factor for those with very young kids. 

There were 30,000 at the Dallas game, 14,000 of which are season ticket holders; a new soccer specific stadium is under construction in Orlando with the original capacity of 18,000 now extended to 25,000 in acknowledgement of the consistently high crowds City are attracting. 

It was a great experience, and a welcome feature of a terrific holiday. While my youngest son didn't get to see Kaka playing he does at least have his name on an Orlando shirt. When Orlando City replica jerseys can be see on the streets and pitches of Belfast, that's a sign that the MLS is finally having a global impact. 

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