Seattle Sounders FC and Orlando City SC could hardly be farther apart within the geographic footprint of Major League Soccer.
But for all the miles between them, there are similarities linking MLS’ 2009 Northwest expansion entry, and the Central Florida newcomer of 2015. Some of that isn’t coincidence.
"We’ve taken a very, very close look at what Seattle has done," Orlando City founder and president Phil Rawlins said in a phone interview. "I met with (Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer) on several occasions. … (An interviewer) said ‘I’m getting the vibe that this is like the Pacific Northwest. It’s crazy right?’ I said ‘No, it really doesn’t sound crazy. That’s the way we think of it. This is like a mini version of the Pacific Northwest in the Southeast.’"
Both clubs graduated from the USL, both turned heads with a high-profile designated-player signing for their first seasons, and both instantly exceeded even their own attendance projections. When the teams meet for the first time Sunday at CenturyLink Field, they come in as the top two home draws in MLS: Seattle averaging 41,324 per home game, and Orlando City averaging 32,973.
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"It’s easy to forget that if you go back to the old NASL days and the ‘70s and maybe early ‘80s, Florida itself as a region was very successful," Rawlins said. "The (Fort Lauderdale) Strikers did very well. The old Tampa Bay Rowdies did very well, and they always drew well. There’s always been a marketplace here that was just really sitting dormant, and I think what it took was the right spark. … What we have in Orlando is a very interesting and unique marketplace. People think of Florida as being kind of a retirement home, if you will, yet in Orlando the average age in the city is 34. So we’ve got a very young city, very vibrant."
Even at that, Orlando City’s attendance numbers have surpassed expectations. The club expected roughly average MLS attendance – and even that would have been an accomplishment for a market well below the MLS average in population. Then suddenly their cap of 14,000 season tickets was reached and a waiting list established. And when the large crowds kept coming even after the special event of opening day, they caused the club to rethink plans for its downtown soccer-specific stadium envisioned to seat less than 20,000.
"It really allowed us to go back to the drawing board again and say, ‘Hey, how can we build something that’s appropriately-sized and not too small," Rawlins said. "That’s what we’ve done. We’ve reconfigured things, we’ve redesigned, and about a week ago we launched what will be the final design for the stadium. It will be 25,500, and increase capacity by about 6,000. We still of course get the calls that it isn’t going to be big enough. It’s a great problem to have."
The Lions haven’t reached that level of success on the pitch, but they will arrive in Seattle with a 7-10-7 record that has them right around the red line in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Helping both on the pitch and in the stands is designated player Kaka, who Seattle coach Sigi Schmid likens to Freddie Ljungberg in the Sounders’ expansion season. Kaka – a former world player of the year and UEFA Champions League scoring champion -- has provided nine goals and four assists over his first 22 MLS games.
"He’s a great fit for our franchise," Rawlins said. "He’s not only a world-class player, he’s a world-class guy both on and off the field. He’s a great ambassador for the league and for Orlando – couldn’t be more humble, couldn’t be more down to earth, and couldn’t be a better leader for us in the locker room with the young guys that we have. We’re delighted to have him."
Schmid indicated Brad Evans will fill in for Osvaldo Alonso (hamstring) at midfield again Sunday. Evans indicated frustration after just becoming comfortable at center back, but said that as captain he will do what is necessary. … Even with the Seattle Seahawks’ exhibition opener Friday, the Sounders say the gridiron lines and markings will be off the pitch by Sunday.