Exceeding Goals

Excitement is building for the debut of Major League Soccer in Orlando in March 2015. Can you feel it?The fuse was lit in November with the official announcement at Church Street Station, which was packed with euphoric fans clad in the purple of the minor-league Orlando City Soccer Lions, who turn major next year.

“Goooooooooal!” screamed the headline in the Orlando Sentinel. “Crowd roars as city gets MLS team.”

Photos showed crowds of flag-waving “futbol” fans so hysterically happy they seemed to be celebrating Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, a winning lottery ticket, and successfully signing on to the Obamacare website all at once.

My reaction that day: Sis, boom and bah.

For me the excitement of having MLS in my backyard ranks up there with the news that my gastroenterologist opened an office just a mile from my home. Soccer may be the most popular sport in the world. But not in my world. Yet.

And just to keep it real amid the MLS mania, the fact is I’m not alone. There are a lot more people like me in Orlando who are yawning at the arrival of big-time soccer. Most of us have kept a respectful silence, not wanting to be skunks at the civic picnic.

But here’s why my tepid sis-boom-bah stops short of humbug:

Though MLS does not excite me, I’m excited for Orlando. It’s another baby step in Orlando’s quest to become one of the great American cities of the 21st century.

I saw that possibility the first time I walked through Orlando International Airport in 1986 when I came to interview for a job. Used to the drab, aging airports in my native Midwest and Boston, I was dazzled by OIA’s sleek modernity, the whoosh of the monorail, the explosion of pastels in the sun-washed atrium, the greenery spilling over the balconies of the Hyatt like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

This, I thought, is what the future perfect looks like.

Over the ensuing 28 years, my hopes for Orlando as the next great American city have waxed and waned as some community leaders dithered foolishly (county pols blocking light rail until seeing the light on SunRail) while others persisted admirably (a new performing arts center will open later this year).

Light rail and high art have this in common with MLS: They do not appeal to everyone. But all three are vital stitches in an expanding civic tapestry that offers something for everyone—an earmark of all great cities.

So this is why I’m trying hard not to be the Ugly American. I want MLS to succeed here. I want to expand my own spectator sport horizons. I want to love soccer like I love baseball, basketball and football. But before I love soccer, I have to understand it.

I think I speak for the great sullen majority of guys who grew up on the meat-and-potatoes sports of yesteryear when I say that soccer seems... boring. But that makes me sound like the people who tell me baseball is boring.

I roll my eyes and say they simply don’t understand the rules and subtleties of baseball. That they don’t appreciate the amazing skill of the players, the infinite variety of things that can happen on any given play. Just like soccer, right?

Not counting kiddie soccer, I have been to one soccer game in my life, a college match decades ago. The two looked the same to me—like uncontrolled jailbreaks, but with snazzier uniforms. I could never grasp the concept of “offside” in all that mayhem.

So I decided to start my Futbol 101 education, Googling “offside position,” which turns out to be the infield fly rule of soccer.

“The player is in an offside position when closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-to-last defender—which usually is the last outfield player—and also in the opponent’s half of the pitch.”

Uh-oh. I had a sudden flashback to failing geometry in high school. I may need a tutor.

, Google offered a slew of disturbing headlines that gave me pause about MLS coming to Orlando: “Soccer fans set rivals’ stadium on fire” (England), “Turkish soccer game ends in riot after chair-wielding fans storm field, fight police,” and “Rioting soccer fans swept away by speeding broken escalator” (Sweden).

I was reassured by bloggers that it can’t happen here—that violence in American sports is confined to the playing field. It’s a risk I’m willing to take to live in a great city. I am ready for some futbol!

Email Greg at feedback@orlandomagazine.com

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