MLS / Union

Parramore: An outsider’s view of the Orlando City stadium experience

Photo: Chris Gibbons

“Look. If there were 60 murders in Orlando five years ago, 59 of them happened in this neighborhood.”

— my brother-in-law, Greg

We’re walking en masse through the streets of Orlando — cousins and uncles, nieces and nephews — on our way to meet the already assembled Sons of Ben in the corner rafters of the sparkling new Orlando City stadium when I learn about the murders in Parramore.

The little nugget of homicidal context, supposedly without hyperbole, doesn’t really phase me. Not because I lived at 18th and Moore in Philadelphia before it was called “Newbold” (which I did, loved, and then understood why gentrification can be incredibly good and also subtly and not so subtly offensive), but because whatever this place was, it’s quickly becoming something altogether different.

My wife and I wear Union blue, subtle but unabashed, my wife’s sister and Greg are in City purple, and everyone else is in a neutral color with a borrowed Union scarf draped around their neck. I own at least 20 more and if we’re going to indoctrinate the family, their baptism will be by snake, not lion.

However, we are outnumbered here, and substantially so. Not only are there 25,000 purple-wearing City faithful singing on the streets two hours before kickoff, but along the way through what looks like a New Orleans-themed version of Northern Liberties, we shuffle by several thousand Orlando fans who will be watching at nearby restaurants and bars, getting the after-party going before the game even starts. (Of note: Former Union and Orlando player Pedro Ribiero was among the crowd, looking fresh to death, but not wearing purple. I subsequently drafted him with my “Cool looking people to hang out with after soccer matches” MLS Expansion draft pick. He was then sent to my USL affiliate, Staying in Every Weekend Because I Have Two Young Kids FC.)

The streets are closed to cars on this stretch, partly because they’re showing the NCAA basketball tournament on Jumbotrons in the middle of the street — the weekend’s NCAA games are happening at the adjacent Amway Center — and partly because the city has committed this stretch of town to hipster bars, hot new eateries, and some reinvigorated athleto-tourism. Orlando has tried this before for minor league hockey, arena football, and spring training. But this time it’s downtown and this time it’s different.

Blue bloods… and purple bloods, too

Greg is a lot like most people who call Orlando home, transplanted here from somewhere else in search of better weather, a place to get away, or some other adventure. He’s originally from outside of Denver, Col., so he bleeds Bronco orange. He also bleeds Chelsea blue (so I can never truly love him as a man or a brother) and now, almost equivalently, a dark shade of City purple.

The way he tells it, the reason City are so successful in Orlando after so many other sports outside of America’s Big Four have failed is that City aren’t competing for his allegiance from the Broncos in the way that the baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays struggle with all their transplanted New Yorkers. They’re not even competing with his love for Chelsea.

Instead, they’re asking him to be an early adopter of something truly unique to American fan culture, to make room in a part of his town and in a corner of his sports calendar for the “other,” something that can be his in a way that a mediocre NBA franchise can never be.

This story of the “other” should sound familiar to any Union fan who has been there from the beginning because it’s our story, too. My first Union jersey has no name on the back and no sponsor on the front, because I bought in, literally and figuratively, before any players or any corporations. As a result, I’m not mad at the M’Bohlis or Bimbos of the world for doing what they have to do for business because I know that, underneath their temporary nameplate, this is the shirt of my team.

Seven years of fandom

Interestingly, City are the same age as the Union. English IT genius Phil Rawlins bought the USL rights to central Florida, brought the former Austin Aztex to town, rebranded them in a market he thought MLS would be interested in, and then threw the kitchen sink at that goal. While they waited for the commissioner to call, they stormed through the division, winning USL in 2013. Even more, their franchise helped develop players such as Kevin Molino, Dom Dwyer, and C.J. Sapong, all of whom spent time with Orlando in USL.

The Lions owned a slight edge in their match against the Union last Saturday, and it showed on the stat sheet, field, and scoreboard.

That isn’t the only edge this team has, though.

Their stadium is bigger, fuller, and easier to get to than the Union’s, and they have a downtown infrastructure just a few blocks away to support a Mardi Gras-type atmosphere before and after every match.

As I walk the neighborhoods of Orlando, I see purple banners on every street light and purple bumper stickers on every car, just like the Eagles and Phillies stickers you see in Philly. There is room on the Orlando sports calendar for this team in a way that Philadelphia, Chicago, New England, and Dallas could never make.

When the Union fired Nick Sakeiweicz, they did so because smart people with the money and final say knew that they were at a crossroads: Either the team shows that it cares as much as the fans, or the fans might stop caring altogether.

As George W. Bush once so famously said, “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice… can’t get fooled again.”

The Union took the right fork that day and began to rebuild fan trust. They’ve shown it with their pocketbook in thoughtful, if sometimes ponderous ways. They’ve bought players, built facilities, and shared a clear long-term vision for this franchise.

Yet, Philadelphia Union still have a steeper hill to climb because they already have a city with four obsessed fan bases. And what they don’t have yet is a true place where supports can go, tickets or not, and be immersed in a fanatical experience.

That’s not to say it will never happen. Indications around Union camp are that the wheels are back in motion to make Chester a true fan destination and continue competing in “MLS 3.0.”

Here’s to the next step.

14 Comments

  1. Good article. I used to be the guy that would run around yelling about the Union until someone turned the game on or told me to shut up, and got offended because soccer wasn’t catching on. I still don’t get people that go out of their way to bash it – I literally don’t have enough time in the day to hate something that has no real bearing on my life otherwise – but I don’t really care anymore if other people watch the Union, because like you said they are “My Team.” Or “Our Team.” I’m proud to share it with you.
    ——
    That being said, I desperately want the experiences that Portland, and Orlando, and SKC and Toronto have. I wish this stadium was more easily accessible with things to do it around it. So I’m waiting with bated breath for the waterfront to arrive as promised.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      IMO one part of the Philadelphia neurosis IS the disconnect between stadium experience and demographic, city experience.
      .
      All four teams. Fifth largest city in the country and not ONE stadium experience that is truly authentic to the city experience except that the experience is a disembodied experience. Curious about the importance of this word experience as is crops up again and again in the comment. I’ve been to Camden Yards, more recently bsseball in SD & San Fran. There is nothing quite like strolling too and from the park enroute by foot to wherever it is next to go. Magical experiences.
      .
      Too bad.

      • Agree.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Agreed. If the Union joined the league last year and had built the stadium downtown or close to downtown or just NOT in Chester… we have the SKC, Portland, OCSC experience. We don’t so more development is needed at Talon. Kind of surprises me that a real estate guy (Sugarman), who is no doubt benefiting greatly from the current stock market… can’t find some friends to invest an build it up.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    I am humbled by your craftsmanship and story telling. Truly.
    .
    When we were children in elementary school our report cards with a type pounded slightly smudged number in the comments section would hopefully have a 3.
    .
    The key would then tell a parent, Asset to Class.
    .

  3. Well done!

  4. great piece.
    i think the biggest misstep this team made was putting its stadium so far outside the city. as much as i love this team, it won’t become close to as popular as the other sports in this city or as popular as soccer is in other cities until they can build a stadium that is in philly. and that won’t happen for a very very long time unless talen gets hit with a meteorite or something

    • Thank good for BSFC and easy commute up the PA Turnpike.
      P.S. Good article.

    • While a downtown stadium like Portland’s would be wonderful, was placing the Union home on the Chester waterfront really a “misstep” or was it simply the best alternative at the time?
      .
      As I recall, the Chester location came with significant political support and public subsidies. I don’t remember any similar incentives being available for a center city location.
      .
      Without the stadium in Chester, there’s a chance that the Union might not even exist right now, and the Philadelphia area might still be waiting for an MLS franchise to call its own.
      .
      And don’t forget, there really is a lot to like about Talen Energy Stadium. The sight lines are great; the pitch is usually in top condition; and the setting, alongside the bridge and the river, is quite nice.
      .
      All things considered, the Union could have done a lot worse.

      • that is all true and i love going to games there but i think my initial point stands. it seems pretty clear to me that they will remain relatively marginal for a long time because of the stadium’s location

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Genuine question: Does anyone think… say within the next 10-25 years… the team is sold and new stadium is built in Philly proper? Or is that just a pipe dream in my (and I’m sure others) mind? Soccer stadiums, while expensive are nothing compared to the price tag of other sports stadiums

    • 10 years: Pipe dream.

      25 years: Probably a pipe dream, but possible.

      • Dan, that’s a reasonable time line. Then again what if Football continues to lose fans and soccer continues to grow ? Eagles swoop down to chester and the Union move north to the Lincoln

    • Depends who pays for it. Delco owns Talen and the U are in year 8 of a 50 year lease in a building they put up 40% for and realize 100% of the revenues.
      .
      I don’t see the Sugarshack walking from equity unless he’s guaranteed a huge payday and somehow someone else foots the bill to build this magical new stadium.
      .
      As a taxpayer in both PA and NJ, I hope to God no one foolishly builds another single purpose stadium just for the experience.

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