Atlanta United, the reigning champions of America’s men’s major league league have never lost to Orlando City SC in nine matches in multiple competitions. The most recent setback for the boys in purple took place Friday night, a 1-0 loss at Orlando City Stadium. This followed a similar setback in the US Open Cup Semifinal for Orlando City SC versus Atlanta United earlier this month. The club from Georgia will host the final tomorrow against Minnesota United FC, a club like Orlando City but unlike Atlanta United, which began its life in the lower divisions of American soccer.
The US Open Cup is a competition that highlights Florida’s importance in American soccer below the major league level. From 2016 to 2018, three different clubs from southeast Florida went on cup runs defeating multiple teams at the same or higher level of the pyramid.
Atlanta has lots of fans for its MLS entry perhaps because they have always won in the short three year lifespan of the club. Atlanta United FC, owned by Arthur Blank did everything right in their buildup to kicking a first ball and have benefited from success on and off the pitch.
Meanwhile in Orlando, the Lions continue to boast immense support despite never making the MLS playoffs and have a women’s team the Orlando Pride that features among others World Champions Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger as well as Marta, one of the greatest women to ever play the sport.
The Atlanta-Orlando rivalry has become one of the more intense soccer derbies in North America – particularly on the Orlando side where envy tends to drive the narrative. When it comes down to it, soccer fans all over America are envious of Atlanta where the sport was invented in early 2017. But in all seriousness even for those of us who predate the club’s arrival in the top US division, the crowds and success of Atlanta United do leave us a bit awe struck. Since the days of the New York Cosmos in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, we have never seen an American soccer club capture the fans in a major metropolitan city this way.
Reality is as soccer fans in America we all envy Atlanta United FC, but at least those of us in Florida should not envy Atlanta when it comes to soccer in general.
Atlanta United’s success has created a hubris among the club and area’s advocates as to its relative importance to this sport. But Florida remains along with the regions around Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest one of the five major epicenters of soccer in this country. The runaway success of a single MLS club does not propel Atlanta past Florida.
Atlanta has Atlanta United today as well as the pro soccer legacies (men’s and women’s) of the Atlanta Silverbacks, Atlanta Beat and Atlanta Chiefs as well as several colleges and semi professional clubs. Atlanta is also the home of Turner and CNN and all of the soccer coverage that brings – CNN International’s soccer-heavy sports programming as well as TNT’s coverage of UEFA Champions League for the US market.
But let’s compare Atlanta to Florida – not only to Orlando but to the entire state.
Atlanta was the birthplace of the modern American professional game when the Atlanta Chiefs famously twice defeated English champion Manchester City in the 1968. Prior to the Chiefs triumph the professional game dominated by factory teams in the Northeast had long died out and had been reduced to start-up pro teams that didn’t last long or ethnic semipro teams in the major cities.
While Atlanta reignited the professional game, Florida took it to another level. The Tampa Bay Rowdies routinely drew large crowds to Tampa Stadium in the late 1970’s while the Fort Lauderdale Strikers success made southeastern Florida a hub for soccer which it remains today. The Strikers created a high-standard of soccer professionals and an infrastructure around the sport that was arguably only replicated domestically in New Jersey and Long Island during the 1980’s.
Warm weather and being an ethnic melting pot helped Florida emerge as a soccer capital. Without spending the time to rehash the history of how Florida got to this point (that’s for another post) let’s discuss what the state has in this day-and-age soccer wise.
Florida is the home to:
BeIN Sports whose US operation is based in Miami. BeIN is the US media rights holder for the Spanish La Liga, widely considered to be the top league in world football. BeIN also has many other soccer centric programs. BeIN which is part of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera family of networks broadcasts both its English and Spanish language channels from Miami.
Telemundo who broadcast from new massive NBCUniversal campus west of Miami, have the rights to all FIFA events in Spanish for the US market. Much of the bumper programming around the 2018 FIFA World Cup, 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and 2019 Copa America were done from the complex near Miami.
TUDN the new joint-venture between Univision and Mexico’s Televisa is based on Doral, just west of Miami. TUDN along with sister channels UniMas and Galavision (both also based out of Doral) broadcast Major League Soccer in Spanish as well as several other leagues including LigaMX, the most popular league on TV in the USA.
Vista Worldlink based in Dania Beach near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is the premier broadcaster for domestic soccer producing and airing USL, NWSL and CONCACAF matches.
Moving on from the media Florida is the home base for USL which runs the nation’s second division and one of its third and forth divisions. Based in Tampa, USL boasts the most professional teams of any league system in North America. USL is the home to several Florida-based teams including the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the successor club to the 1975-1993 team. USL’s broadcasts are done via a partnership with the aformentioned Vista Worldlink.
The Rowdies were one of four Florida-based clubs in the NASL, a second division that last played in 2017 including teams in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Jacksonville. Miami FC which was in the NASL has won eight trophies in the last three years including two NPSL National Championships. Miami FC will compete in the newly-formed professional NISA league beginning next month.
Another national adult amateur league, UPSL was won this past Spring by the Lakeland Tropics. The Tropics are one of about 50 high-level adult amateur teams in the state, a number only rivaled by California.
Florida State University has won two national titles in women’s soccer since 2014 and made six of the last eight College Cups. Barry University and Lynn University have consistently competed at high levels winning championships in the college game and Bradenton’s IMG Academy remains one of the elite development spots in the nation.
Relevent Sports continues to bring the highest level of international friendlies to Miami while both Orlando and Tampa have emerged as one of the elite locations for the US Men’s (USMNT) and Women’s National Teams (USWNT) to host matches with strong home crowd support. In fact no state hosted more USMNT matches in the 1990’s than Florida and in the 2010’s the state has re-emerged as a reliable home ground.
Florida also boasts multiple supporters owned or membership-based clubs including Tallahassee SC, Palm Beach Breakers and Himmarshee FC (a phoenix club which rose after the collapse of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2017, showing what is possible when fans of clubs that are mismanaged take upon themselves to keep a team running).
We could go on and one but the point remains- while Atlanta has done an amazing job of elevating the men’s major league in the United States to a new level, it’s not in Florida’s area code when it comes to overall impact and influence on the game at all levels in the United States.