This goes back a little over a week. It has taken me that long to articulate my thoughts. I will use vacation as the excuse. But it probably has more to do with my laziness than anything else.
I watched Toronto FC’s woeful performance against Independiente on February 19th while vacationing with my family in Florida. I thought that watching our lads on the telly would kick-start my juices in advance of the MLS season. I was wrong. Oh, so very wrong. I finished that match feeling angry, sad and depressed. I wasn’t sure if I had just witnessed a massacre or a planned suicide. Either way, I needed to purge the horrendously awful memories. Funny thing is that my daughters and my wife felt exactly the same way. We hankered for a real stadium, with a well maintained, natural turf pitch. We longed for two teams with players that we were familiar with duking it out on the field, while knowledgeable fans critiqued every play and demanded more from their shin-pad clad gladiators. We needed something/anything resembling live, professional football to restore our faith in the North American game, and we needed it immediately!
As if by divine provenance, the final of the inaugural Orlando City Invitational was being contested the very next day. For a mere $15 we could sit anywhere we wanted and watch the home team battle against the New England Revolution for a chance to hoist some pre-season silverware. Diego Fagundez, Teal Bunbury, Juan Agudelo and Cristian Penilla were all slated to play for the visitors. Lamine Sane, Cristian Higuita and newcomer Uri Rosell were suiting up for the home team, as was Pickering native Greg Ranjitsingh (absolutely no relation). Also, Nani was going to be paraded around the field for the first time. We had (and have) absolutely no allegiance to either team. So, as neutrals, what the hell; if going only partially restored our sanity after the horror that had just occurred in Panama, then it would be worth it.
Boy, was it ever worth it! This was pre-season done right. This was (and is) the model that should be followed by the rest of MLS. This was a combination of MLB Spring Training and football’s International Champions Cup, but in an easily consumable package, in the right environment. This is how TFC should prepare for next year’s campaign.
For starters, the location is ideal for eastern teams. Fleeing to California (as Toronto FC has done in the past) does nothing to strengthen the relationship between the fans and the team. The Florida circuit is much closer to, and is a much more affordable option for, those who regularly attend TFC games. Like the fans of Toronto’s baseball team, I am sure that many faithful Reds supporters would embark on an organized excursion to watch their club ready themselves for the new season. It would be a getaway to a warmer clime that would serve as part pilgrimage and part vacation. Given the location, it would be both family friendly as well as conducive to more adventurous pursuits.
Secondly, the competition at the Orlando Invitational is better than playing against NCAA clubs and USL squads. The 2019 version of this tournament, in its first year, only had 4 teams participating: Orlando, New England, Minnesota United and New York City FC (who will open their regular season in Orlando on March 2nd). Assuming that the number of teams entered into this pre-season exhibition expands (and there is no reason to think that it won’t), this is definitely the right way to get ready for the year ahead. Granted, the lineups will still be littered with prospects and players on the cusp of full-time MLS employment. But they will also be complemented by roster players and well known stars. The natural inclination to beat your professional rivals, especially if derby-style matches are played, will also spur a higher level of competitiveness. If anyone is worried about “quality”, rest assured that the matches that were played in Orlando were far better than the piffle that was TFC versus Vegas or that debacle in La Chorrera, Panama.
Next, is the venue. We are talking about a real, MLS stadium, with real dressing rooms and real football fans. The building, itself, is great. It is spotless and intimate. More important, though, is the atmosphere and the overall experience.
From the moment we got out of the car, everything was first-rate. This was not a hastily thrown together/last minute afterthought. This game was an event. This tournament was an event. The fans knew it, and treated it as such. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the host facility was not a neutral location. This meant that the organizers had substantial skin in the game — that’s a really good thing!
We did not wear anything to denote that we were visitors. We wanted to experience what the locals experienced. We didn’t want a Universal Studios/Disney menu of false concern and pretend welcomes. We didn’t need them. Nor did we get them. Instead, we received genuine politeness and heart-felt greetings. The security staff, dressed in easily identifiable yellow Orlando City jerseys, welcomed us to the stadium and interacted with our girls as if we were old friends. The staff at the souvenir shop (called “The Den”) were great as well. The shop itself was fully stocked with 2019 merchandise, including a wall of Nani #17’s. There was no attempt to fob-off last year’s junk with the excuse that it was still preseason.
The sea of purple jerseys was tremendous. The 5,000+ fans who attended seemed to be there for the sport and not to be seen. They hung on every play. They were boisterous and rowdy, but in a good way. They erupted with every Orlando goal as if this final really meant something. They demanded an aggressive and highly competitive product on the field, and the players delivered. What a great environment to train in. What a great environment to be a part of.
The tournament is not perfect...yet. There are still a few things to work on. That’s to be expected. As mentioned several times, this was the first edition of an event that will evolve over time. The addition of more teams, a change in format, the addition of non-Orlando City merch for sale, the use of nearby Camping World Stadium to off-set the over-use of the natural turf pitch — all of these are points to consider for the future. But, make no mistake, it is the right idea and it is far better than the sequestered, make-shift gaggle of “competition” that a lot of MLS clubs pass off as “preparation” for the new campaign.
Since the mid-2000’s, some of Europe’s top clubs have travelled the world to play in various preseason tournaments. They see these events for the opportunities that they are — great ways to connect with their fans, further promote their brands, and fine-tune their squads in a competitive environment before things start for real.
Thanks to Orlando City SC for giving my family and me a taste of what MLS pre-season can (and should) be. It would be nice if Toronto FC took a seat at the table in 2020.