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Orlando and MLS see their future in Chester

Photo: Earl Gardner

Orlando Mayor Teresa Jacobs wants to see her city’s future this Saturday at PPL Park.

Her goal is to get a better sense of what her city would truly be getting if Orlando provides funding, land or tax breaks for a new soccer-specific stadium that would house a Major League Soccer club. In August, Orlando’s city president did a similar bit of research when he took a trip to the unqualified success story known as Sporting Kansas City and Livestrong Park.

Jacobs will get a more complex view in Chester.

She’ll see a beautiful stadium with a spectacular view of the Delaware River and Commodore Barry Bridge.

And she’ll find an occupant delinquent on its city taxes (or payment in lieu of taxes, to be specific).

She’ll mingle with an extraordinarily loyal and vocal fan base.

But the stadium may be littered with empty seats due to the team’s on-field struggles this year.

She’ll watch a team full of potential, piss and vinegar.

Then she’ll wonder why so many Union players will vote in just their first presidential election this year, at which point someone may have to explain what a Peter Nowak is.

It’s a complicated story, this Philadelphia Union. Not as linear or simple as Sporting Kansas City, one of America’s best soccer teams playing in one of its best stadiums for one of the most visionary management teams in pro sports.

Instead, Philadelphia Union is proving a unique tale. In December, the club looked like it could give Seattle some competition for the quickest ascension to championship contender by an expansion club in the last decade. Then in June, it looked like it could go the way of Toronto, alienating anyone and everyone who came in contact with team management. Now it’s neither, hovering in the purgatory known as recovery and renewal, rebuilding connections with fans and players and regaining a respectability tarnished on and off the field by a man not far enough in their rear view mirror.

Will the good mayor of Orlando capture all this? Doubtful.

But Orlando officials are doing their homework, and that speaks well for the future of MLS. It means they’re serious, and that’s good because this is exactly the kind of market MLS needs.

One hopes MLS recognizes what this year’s two most successful minor league soccer teams in America have in common with the league’s two most successful franchises off the field.

Orlando and San Antonio are large, growing cities with few professional sports options with which to compete. Portland is the nation’s largest metropolitan area with just one team in the other four major professional team sports, while Seattle is the largest with just two. Their success is in no small part due to lack of other pro sports options in markets much larger than they were at the height of pro sports expansion 40 to 50 years ago.

Orlando is the nation’s 26th largest metropolitan market and has just one top tier professional team, making it one of the largest markets in that situation. That said, Florida has rarely been kind to pro sports outside football, so it has its challenges.

San Antonio, the nation’s 7th largest city, is 63 percent Latino and has just one major pro sports team: the Spurs, whose NBA season doesn’t overlap with MLS. Soccer fans there just saw their NASL team record the highest attendance in minor league soccer and the NASL’s best record in their first season, and their nearest top tier soccer club is 200 miles away in Houston. Sound like a good place to relocate and rebrand Chivas USA with new ownership? Yep, sure does.

So when Teresa Jacobs comes to Philadelphia with MLS officials as her likely escorts, one hopes they all not only take heed of the complex, nuanced story that is Philadelphia Union, but also look beyond the obvious to find the hidden gems that can become the next Seattle or Portland. Philadelphia offers one view of American soccer’s future, but it’s not the only one.

10 Comments

  1. Great article, and I’m personally very excited at the prospect of Orlando joining the league. I went to college and worked down there for over half a decade, and it’s where I was born as a soccer fan (no one in my family ever gave a damn).

  2. Yeah, its a shame the mls is trying so hard to court NY.

  3. Thank you for this article – another good one from PSP. I think that the mention of Portland is very appropriate, especially in light of their neighbor just 80 miles to the north: Austin.
    In looking at US cities with respect to population and number of other pro teams, I think you fail to point out that the Union have had good attendance in a metropolitan area that has 4 pro sports teams. Three of those teams have excellent attendance, and as you mention, the NBA and MLS seasons have little overlap.

    • Very good point! The Union have had very good attendance on the whole. Probably should’ve pointed that out myself. It’s illustrative of how the Union have overcome some of those challenges inherent in cracking through in a crowded pro sports market. That’s been a challenge the Red Bulls, Chicago, etc. still struggle with.

  4. I also think kc is a unique situation. The ownership has made great strides to be fan friendly , going as far as intentionally keeping concession stand prices to a min. I know it’s a small thing, but enough small things add up to big thing

  5. Er, the success of a league depends on the success of the clubs, not the other way round – MLS isn’t the be-all and end-all of pro-soccer in the US.

    With the Cosmos joining D2 soccer in 2013 there will be three strong clubs below MLS, and that number is only going to grow because MLS can’t find space for all the teams who want to play in it.

    How long before the Union need a bigger stadium?

    • Actually, it’s a symbiotic relationship.

      And I disagree. Right now, MLS *IS* the be-all and end-all of pro soccer in the U.S. NASL could have something to say about that at some point in the future — yes, I’ve thought of the implications of a competing league too — but that point is not now.

  6. If Orlando is Team #20, I guess that Houston or SKC would jump to the Western Conference?

  7. Wonderful snapshot of where the Union are right now:

    “In December, the club looked like it could give Seattle some competition for the quickest ascension to championship contender by an expansion club in the last decade. Then in June, it looked like it could go the way of Toronto, alienating anyone and everyone who came in contact with team management. Now it’s neither, hovering in the purgatory known as recovery and renewal, rebuilding connections with fans and players and regaining a respectability tarnished on and off the field by a man not far enough in their rear view mirror.”

    Just perfect. The offseason will tell us a lot. I’m afraid that Nick S. talks a good game but that ownership doesn’t have the $s to make any meaningful signings and that the drop off in attendance (and likely season ticket renewals) will further scare them from taking any financial risks.

  8. Just an FYI, Theresa Jacobs isn’t the mayor of Orlando. Buddy Dyer is, Theresa Jacobs is the mayor of Orange county, FL. DO YOUR RESEARCH!!! lol

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