MLS preseason | Orlando City proving it will be good fit as league member

jdill@bradenton.comFebruary 12, 2014 

MANATEE -- The past couple weeks at IMG Academy has given players, coaches and fans the chance to see what the upcoming Major League Soccer season has in store for the Eastern Conference clubs that made the journey to Manatee County.

On Tuesday, though, the fans who flocked to IMG's stadium had the opportunity to see the future beyond the 2014 campaign.

Orlando City Soccer Club was announced as an MLS expansion franchise for 2015 back in November, and the Lions squared off against the Chicago Fire to begin their preseason Tuesday.

The Fire won the match 3-0.

"We're all looking forward to it," Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath said of joining the MLS. "We're trying to prepare for a season in the USL (United Soccer Leagues), but with an eye on next year. We know we have an awful long way to go and we've got a lot of hard work ahead of us, but we're really excited."

But the club isn't brand new.

Orlando City came into existence in 2010, when the Austin Aztex relocated to central Florida.

Since then, the Lions have captured hardware in the United Soccer League Pro League that was created in 2011. They won the regular season title in 2011 and 2012 and postseason crowns in 2011 and 2013.

The USL Pro division is the third tier of the American soccer pyramid, just below the MLS and North American Soccer League.

However, Orlando City's success didn't equate to an automatic ascension. That's because when the MLS got started in the 1990s, it adopted more of the American sports model rather than the soccer model the

rest of the world uses.

This meant no promotion and regulation system to reward strong play from the lower leagues and punishment for poor form in the higher leagues.

"That's just the way the league is structured. The soccer here in America is structured and you have to adapt to it," said Orlando City goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, who started Tuesday's match and began with the club when it was a PDL side in Austin, Texas, back in 2008. "We understand what it takes to make a lower division team and bring it to the MLS. ... We started from the PDL, so I think it makes it that much more special to know that we worked really, really hard to go from PDL to USL and now MLS next year. ... We've earned the right."

So the only avenue for Orlando City to test its mettle against MLS sides was with the domestic cup competition -- a tournament that resembles the model used around the world in leagues such as the English Premier League with the FA Cup and Spain's La Liga with the Copa del Rey.

And the Lions put themselves on the radar nationally in this past year's U.S. Open Cup when they knocked off defending MLS champion Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in the fourth round and became the lone USL Pro side to advance to the quarterfinals.

Now Orlando City is preparing for its final USL Pro season with the MLS taking the Lions beginning in 2015.

For Gallardo and defender Rob Valentino, it's a dream the duo said they thought could be a reality based off the club's vision and professionally oriented managing style.

"I believed full force that it could happen," said Valentino, who has been with the club since 2011. "We saw the support from day one."

But with passionate supporters -- a group waved flags and banged drums throughout Tuesday's 90-minute match and released purple smoke in honor of the Lion's primary color -- gives Orlando City the feel of an outfit from another part of the world.

And that might be reason for optimism that the club will stick in the MLS.

The previous Florida experiment ended in retraction when the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion didn't last.

Miami is giving a strong push to become another MLS member with David Beckham reportedly backing the bid.

Orlando City doesn't possess that figurehead yet, but rumors have linked former AC Milan superstar Kaka as a key signing when the club moves into MLS.

"If that was to come off, we'd obviously be delighted to have a player of the year, two-time player of the year in the club," Heath said.

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