Editors note: In order to bring more robust and diverse content to TFS we’re beginning to increase the number of posts of travel, history, weather and sports. This long-form piece on Orlando City SC, which is the byproduct of years of reporting is part of that effort. In reference to this piece a number of individuals spoke on background to us, and some consented to have quotes published that are unattributed. Therefore we’ve identified the background and qualifications of the people speaking but not the names of the individuals.
Writer’s note (Oct 24, 8:30 pm ET) : 24 hours after publishing, I want to personally apologize to all offended for the confusion about this piece and the vitriol that has ensued from it. The article was never meant to critique fan behavior or make a commentary about hooliganism at all – it was meant to demonstrate the mistakes of Orlando City’s Front Office and the fan-related anecdotes were tied in to relate to FO policies and decisions. I have gotten feedback that I neglected to mention multiple alleged incidents of bad fan behavior or hooliganism. One of the incidents I neglected to cover even involved me as an ancillary part, but I didn’t use it. Again, the point was NOT to write an account of incidents of alleged fan violence involving Orlando City supporters. It was to critique and analyze the decisions of a Front Office that have many around the world of American soccer concerned. Thanks again for reading.
“When Orlando City began (in MLS), nationally known and locally-based columnist Mike Bianchi wrote about soccer fever, about the city finding an identity through soccer and about how he believed Orlando City would not be a flash in the pan like the Orlando Magic had been. Now, thanks to front office mismanagement, an insular culture and years of diminished returns, it’s almost insulting to the Magic to compare their long-standing battle with mediocrity to Orlando City.”
– A veteran soccer journalist speaking to me this week about Orlando City SC
After not winning a match in three months, Orlando City SC broke its long streak of futility on Sunday in front of a sparse crowd of Central Florida soccer fans. In the period which ended Sunday, the club collected only six points (one win and three draws) out of a possible sixty nine from the previous twenty three matches. Additionally, the Lions have broken the MLS record for most goals conceded in a season. In any other top professional soccer league in the world, this would mean Orlando City SC would be facing relegation to a lower division, but protected by the closed system of US Soccer, the club will continue in MLS even if they’ve become a punch line of sorts for opposing fans and executives.
This collapse however is not an outlier – in the previous two seasons, Orlando City fell away as the season wore off and finished outside postseason contention despite lots of early season promise and organizational hype.
How did this happen to an organization and a club touted as the greatest thing in American soccer just a few short years ago? How did a fanbase so passionate and engaged in their club allow the team they professed to bleed for slip into the morass it currently finds itself in?
Orlando City SC’s elevation from the lower leagues of American soccer to MLS in 2015 was on the surface the biggest promotion of a club for the league since Seattle made a similar move in 2009. At first the Lions seemed to have the complete package – a new stadium that was being built, crazy fans, the right demographic mixture in the region and committed ownership that understood the sport at a higher level than most in this country. However, it has all gone sour and did so quickly, the club having never come even remotely close to the heights they sought.
This article will not attempt to tell in-depth the story of why Orlando City SC got it wrong. Many top soccer writers in the United States have told that story relative to specific items. This piece will attempt to create a narrative that ties those stories together and paints a complete picture of a club that has failed spectacularly based on the very standards they set for themselves.
The promise of 2015 gives way to a winter of discontent
At first, the Lions wowed outsiders. A packed Citrus Bowl crowd of over 62,000 for the club’s first MLS match on March 8, 2015 was followed by regularly high attendance even for games on weeknights. But for some who had worked in the sport professionally like myself and others, the facade was already shattering in 2015.
Nonetheless, Orlando City started well. Under Manager Adrian Heath, a former star for Everton FC who learned management from the legendary late Howard Kendall, Orlando City SC was competitive in MLS year one, keeping much of the British and American/Caribbean core that had been so successful in the lower leagues. Orlando City and its predecessor club Austin Aztex had compiled the best per-match point total in the US lower professional divisions between 2010 and 2014.
Heath, who had managed the team since 2009 (the club was then based in Austin) was connected to Phil Rawlins the original owner and greatest influence on making Orlando City a community-based club. Rawlins was also a board member of Stoke City FC, a club in the (English) Premier League, the richest and most watched football league on the planet.
The partnership between Heath and Rawlins, along with other clients of the UK-based Beswicks Sports agency, helped populate Orlando City’s squad with serviceable professionals – good enough to dominate lower division soccer in the US but not nearly high level enough to make a lasting difference in MLS.
In speaking to those around the game in preparation for writing this piece a player agent pointedly asked me to try and determine “Is the relationship the front office has with Beswicks an asset or a hindrance to the club?” While I wouldn’t say having a relationship with Beswicks is a problem, as we will explore deeper in this piece, the club perhaps has become overly reliant on the agency for various functions, limiting the ability for the Lions to attract top management talent to the club.
Irrespective of the Beswicks connection, Rawlins knowledge of community-oriented football clubs in Britain and his unique connection with the fans made his stewardship of the club incredibly successful. However, in order to secure finances to move to MLS and eventually build a stadium, Rawlins had to court additional investment – and eventually Brazilian Flavio da Silva stepped up.
Heath had the Lions in a strong position following the team’s first season in MLS. Barely missing the postseason (OCSC hasn’t come nearly as close to qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs since) and boasting a core that included World Cup and UEFA Champions League winner Kaka, Kevin Molino (one of the brightest attacking midfield talents in MLS) and Cyle Larin, Canada’s top goal scoring threat, the future looked bright.
But the defense looked weak and the situation in central midfield right behind Kaka and Molino was unsettled. In retrospect, no effort was made to improve the squad logically. Instead, palace intrigue took over with staff members leaving and the front office on a whole taking a look more in-line with majority owner da Silva than with Rawlins.
A well-connected MLS watcher told me recently about Orlando City’s demise: “The writing was on the wall after the first season when they didn’t go out and correct their on-field personnel deficiencies.”
The culture of conformity, misunderstanding MLS and referee abuse
As an observer I was struck by the hostility of many Orlando City supporters to referees and to fans of other clubs. I, like many others, were stunned by the seeming sense of entitlement the club’s hierarchy had – MLS had existed for almost twenty years but they had come to perfect the sport in the United States, acting as if they knew more about the global game, scouting players and attracting crowds than people who had years of success doing just those things in this country.
The club twice allegedly flaunted MLS rules between the summer of 2015 and early 2016 by tampering with players either under contract with other clubs or whose rights were owned by another MLS club. While MLS rules don’t make a whole lot of sense to outside observers accustomed to the global conventions that tend to govern club football, Orlando City SC seemed not to care about the rules of the league they had joined.
The arrogance of the Orlando City SC front office was in 2015 and 2016 often matched by supporters of all stripes. Convinced of refereeing conspiracies against the club and that fans of other, more established soccer clubs were envious, the Lions faithful engaged in the worst sort of insularity. Simply selling out matches meant the club was still doing everything right, or at least acted that way. Something seemingly remarkable for a very cosmopolitan, hip and urbane fan base but in fact simply a reflection of supporters who had put their faith in an organization whose clannishness and spewing of company lines was remarkable even for Major League Soccer, a league known for its conformity and corporatism.
In the offseason entering the 2016 campaign, the organization culled a few of its long-time employees and launched both a women’s team, the Orlando Pride and a “B” team in the lower divisions. The women’s team traded the rights to Lindsey Horan and a draft pick that ended up being Emily Sonnett along with Meghan Klingenberg to acquire Alex Morgan from Portland. The acquisition of Morgan was done for marketing purposes.
Horan has gone on to be arguably one of the top ten players in the world but this might as well just be another example of how the organization thinks – Horan had no marketing value and no sizzle with casual fans. Yet more educated women’s soccer fans would likely have preferred watching a balanced team with the likes of Horan, Sonnett and Klingenberg, among others, in it. At the time a well-connected women’s soccer source told me when I mused that the Pride had given up too much, that if Orlando had not been able to acquire Morgan, the club never would have started a women’s team to begin with. Being able to market Morgan was the sole criteria to starting a new team.
Morgan is no doubt a very good player, but no player, particularly an isolated attacking player is of the same value as three of highest-level field players in the league. That is in terms of actual playing considerations.
In 2016, the Lions started decently enough but pressure was mounting on Heath. Despite being outplayed regularly the front office and fans continued to blame the referees for failings. Case in points below:
When Orlando lost 3-2 to Red Bull New York in Harrison, NJ the noise coming from Orlando fans about being robbed was deafening. But thanks to Taylor Twellman, ESPN’s lead soccer analyst, we learned that the controversial non-call the non-call foul on Karl Ouimette of the Red Bulls occurred right after Cyle Larin was incorrectly deemed onside. This non-call for which Orlando’s chorus was so incensed in fact never should have happened because Larin being offside meant the play would have been dead before Ouimette’s foul.
— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) April 25, 2016
But a narrative of victimization continued. For example, against Portland in a 4-1 win, Orlando City left-sided player Brek Shea should have been sent off early in the first half – this prompted MLS to take action following the match in which Shea played a major part in the Lions victory. In a 2-2 draw with New England, even though there is little doubt a final farcical controversial call that salvaged a draw for the Revolution, Orlando City was fortunate to be ahead. Minutes before the New England equalizer, Molino had clearly according to video replays clearly handled the ball on his goal that put the Lions ahead. It is also possible the foul in the first minute of the match that gave Orlando a lead thanks to a penalty kick occurred after a possible handball by the Lions’ Julio Baptista. The conclusion of match saw bottles and plastic cups thrown from the stands toward the New England bench and coach Jay Heaps. Following the match, the club tweeted out an attack on the refs from its official twitter and then deleted the post a half hour or so later after a source tells me the league itself stepped in.
What all of these incidents led to was a culture of outright abuse toward officials from Orlando fans, with the crowds loudly booing and jeering at any call that rightly or wrongly went against the Lions. Going to an Orlando City match from May 2016 onward due to this culture became a toxic experience for many seasoned soccer supporters. Against this backdrop, some shifted to the women’s team which was performing better and was attracting seemingly more educated soccer-savvy fans.
Having worked in the sport for many years and covering it even longer, I have long been of the opinion that these sorts of controversial calls tend to even out over the course of a season. But Orlando fans, the front office and even some local media continued to play the victim card, and quickly turned the club’s once lauded off-field success into a punching bag for opposing fans.
It got so bad that in 2017, a Twitter account that was allegedly owned by the President of the Ruckus, an official Orlando City SC supporters group, published the personal contact information of Referee Ted Unkel after a controversial call that went against the Lions in a match versus Chicago. The tweet later deleted was retweeted by the Ruckus’ official account. Unkel is a referee based in Florida who has been at the center of many high profile controversies in the past, but from my experience he’s probably given Orlando City as many favorable calls as he has poor ones (including one very favorable call the previous season against Chicago which forced the Fire to play man down for much of the night, in a match I attended).
During the summer of 2016, Heath was sacked after losing to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (for whom I was serving as a communications and media relations consultant at the time) in the US Open Cup and to FC Dallas in the league. In spite of some demonstrative reactions from fans unhappy about the sacking, most closed ranks behind the club as it embarked on an even more reckless course with the only coach it had in its history out of the picture.
Following Heath’s sacking and hiring of new Manager Jason Kreis, Orlando City SC collapsed in the final months of 2016 on the pitch. Kreis, once considered the wonder-kid of American soccer management had been cruelly fired after one season of leading the Manchester City owned MLS club in New York City. Kreis had been sacked in NYC in order to make way for a Manchester City employee, Patrick Vieira, the former French World Cup winner. With Kreis eliciting much sympathy and a great CV from his time leading Real Salt Lake, he seemed a good choice. However, it seems in retrospect either much of the decision making was never placed in his hands or he bombed spectacularly.
As the results got worse in 2016, many fans and the front office dug in even more than before. But 2017 would be different with the opening of privately-financed Orlando City Stadium: a state-of-the-art facility near downtown.
The stadium’s construction had created controversy as The New York Times reported that the club had engaged in a legal but ethically questionable visa scheme pitch to potential investors in Brazil and China. Particularly in charged political climate of 2016 when immigration was a leading issue in domestic politics, the optics from this report and subsequent fallout, if anything weren’t positive.
No hope despite new stadium
2017 started well under Kreis with Orlando City sitting atop the table in the league toward the end of April. But like in previous seasons, the bottom fell out. Quite frankly as the season went on the Lions appeared like they had quit on Kreis, something even when results were poor under Heath, could not be said. For a second successive year, the Lions were eliminated from the prestigious US Open Cup by a lower division side from South Florida on their home field, and recorded one win in all competitions over the course of a 12-week period during the summer.
The club made a trade to bring in Dom Dwyer, a former star at the University of South Florida and a favorite of Orlando City SC fans for his role in securing the 2013 USL Pro Championship while on loan from Sporting Kansas City of MLS. Dwyer played well for the rest of 2017 but most of the supporting cast did not, having seemingly checked out on the club and the campaign.
Meanwhile, a new MLS team up I-75 in Atlanta had gotten the ire of Lions supporters leading to lots of ugly behavior on social media and eventually in public. Atlanta United FC, quickly emerged as a top MLS side its inaugural campaign of 2017 and a terminal almost sickening envy from Orlando City supporters toward Atlanta would be a constant theme of 2017 and 2018. The Orlando City SC front office stoked the rivalry leading to some ugly public fan behavior. But despite the passions of the supports and front office, to this day, the Lions have failed to beat Atlanta United even once in six meetings.
The instant success of Atlanta United made many Orlando supporters, already insecure about the team’s failings on the pitch, even more defensive in discussing their club.
Even more troubling was that discipline broke down both on and off the pitch. The club and its “B” team suffered four player arrests after the team’s slide began and an embarrassing incident where several male players and Alex Morgan were asked to leave Disney World for disorderly conduct. The men had little to play for as their season had long since gone up in flames, but Morgan strangely had a semifinal playoff game days later against her old club Portland, yet was out apparently partying. The Orlando Pride would suffer a devastating 4-1 defeat in Portland days later, ending the club’s season. Irrespective of the result, at least Morgan and the women had played well enough to reach the postseason, a target that continues to be elusive for the men’s side.
The team’s performances as 2017 wore on were so dire that one seasoned soccer fan in Florida told me at the end of last season “they have a long rebuild and it would be a stunner if they retained the coach and the front office staff.” But that’s exactly what the club did, retaining Kreis, overhauling the roster substantially but continuing to flounder in scouting and ultimately with accountability. Some of the Lions offseason moves made sense. Bringing Sacha Kljestan, one of the best technical American midfielders of the last decade and Justin Meram, an American-born Iraqi international who was a key part of the successful Columbus Crews recent success were smart moves. Others weren’t so inspired, nor was the club’s petulant handling of Larin’s departure to a major club in Turkey.
But it must be said 2018 did for a while seem different. After losing to Heath’s new club, Minnesota United FC, the Lions rattled off six straight wins. Then it all went bad again, much like 2017. But unlike 2017, the club fired Kreis and tried to quickly arrest the slide by hiring former Orlando City standout player and Beswicks client James O’Connor. Why O’Connor took the job can be questioned – he had just won the second division title with Louisville City FC but turning down an MLS offer is always difficult.
O’Connor was not the Lions first choice however – that was Caleb Porter the former MLS Cup winning Manager of the Portland Timbers, who had previously turned the University of Akron into the college men’s football program playing the most international style in division one soccer. Porter, a former Tampa Bay Mutiny player is opinionated but also highly respected within the game. It was Porter’s reinvention of how college soccer could be played at Akron’s program that from my vantage point makes NCAA’s men’s soccer even remotely relevant today in a world of elite academies and pay-to-play development long before young men hit college age.
The inability to close a deal with Porter turned heads in the world of American soccer, where hiring the former Timbers Head Coach seemed an obvious, easy choice. A well-connected US Soccer observer posed this question to me in June when Porter passed on the job- “It is rumored Caleb Porter would have no say in personnel decisions should he have been hired. Other coaches in MLS have a say, why doesn’t the Orlando City head coach have a say?”
Many in the game believe Orlando City’s General Manager Niki Budalic’s reliance on Beswicks’ to bring OCSC players and coaches has made it impossible for managers not connected to the agency such as Kreis or Porter to actually operate.
A player agent not connected with Beswicks’ put it to me this way. – “If seeking a young coach, why wasn’t Marc Dos Santos (former Montreal Impact, Ottawa Fury FC, San Francisco Deltas and Swope Park Rangers Manager) considered? He speaks multiple languages and he knows the North American soccer landscape. Was it because he is not a Beswick’s client?” Whether O’Connor’s elevation and player decisions by Budalic are entirely dependent on the Beswicks’ connection or not, the appearance is not great. O’conner’s record of just two wins since his hiring in mid June is an embarrassing statistic, but unlike under Kreis last season, the team hasn’t quit on its manager. It should be noted O’Conner’s record in Louisville justifies giving the Manager more time, but other structural changes need to be made to the side regardless as to whether he is retained or not for next season.
Meanwhile, this season some of the Lions fans continued to be problematic. Justin Meram, a bonafide star with Columbus asked to return to the Ohio club midway through the 2018 season. He was granted his wish. Meram had to deal with the ugly side of fan behavior in Central Florida. Speaking to The Tribune Company’s Soccer site, Pro Soccer USA, Meram said in late June:
“What I’ve dealt with, death threats or, comments of – you know we have Mason [Stajduhar] here who just came over cancer – but comments of, ‘you know, you look like a cancer patient,”
Meram returned to Columbus shortly thereafter, but in an odd trade clause that would likely be struck down under FIFA statutes if challenged, Orlando City according to Crew Manager Gregg Berhalter would not allow Meram to suit up against the Lions in the match this past Sunday.
The feeling that the arrogance of Orlando City SC’s front office was compounded by an assumption that local fans would never turn on them is beginning to dissipate. As fans in Central Florida began to voice their objections to the way the club was conducting its business, the team’s public face became more insular and bitter, leaving many long-term fans displaced.
As for the Orlando fans, they deserve better though I was reminded this week by multiple people they aren’t exactly “good” fans in many instances. Nonetheless, the legions of committed soccer fans and others who were attracted to Orlando City SC because of its community feel, cosmopolitan crowd and ambiance deserve to have faith in the organization they spent so much time and money backing. Let’s hope the bottom has finally fallen out and the organization can pick itself up and begin the slow, painful process of rebuilding.