It’s only appropriate that Dom Dwyer defined USL PRO’s Saturday title game. It was the Sporting KC player’s one-game loan to Orlando that had made the biggest headlines in the lead up. After starting the season with the third division team, the MLS forward was loaned back to the club three days before their title game against the visiting Charlotte. Come Saturday night, his four goals and an assist had let the Lions to a 7-4 over the Eagles, giving them the third division title.
In front of a stellar crowd of 20,886 at the Florida Citrus Bowl, the Lions claimed their second title in three years. Unfortunately, the overarching story is the controversial way they went about it. Had Dwyer faded into the background and failed to have an impact on the match, we could overlook the fact that adding a first-tier talent to a third-tier squad days before the season’s final game prima facie unfair. Rather than spend a season molding a team that could stand on its own at year’s end, Orlando added a game-defining player three days before the title game – a player who immediately went back to his principal club.
The wrinkle here is that Dwyer spent 13 games with Orlando at the start of the season. Unfortunately, he was not on their roster for the last half of the season, nor was he there for the playoffs. This wasn’t just akin to a player returning from injury at the right time. Dwyer was part of another organization on Tuesday, sent to Orlando on Wednesday, and defined the season’s most important game on Saturday.
To their credit, Charlotte seems to have taken the high road after the game, per these quotes from the Charlotte Observer:
“We didn’t play real well defensively and we know they’re very good in attack,” Charlotte coach Mark Steffens said. “I look more at the seven (goals allowed) than the four (goals scored.) You can’t win giving up seven …
“When we went up 3-2, we had to do a better job of holding the lead there,” Steffens said.
“We know they’re potent in attack. They’re unbelievable. I can’t even say we played poorly, they’re just good,” he said.
That’s very gracious of Steffens, and perhaps he’s part of the camp that feels that because Dwyer was a part of Orlando at the beginning of the season, the Sporting prospect had a place in the game. With four goals and an assist, he certainly made the most of his opportunity.
“Credit to Orlando, they’re a fantastic team,” [Charlotte’s Christian] Ramirez said. “They just have a will to not give up. We did everything we could.”
And Orlando’s entire team, Dwyer included, deserve credit for their performance on Saturday. But Dwyer with playing such a big role, it’s difficult to see USL PRO’s title game as anything but compromised.
The result marked an end to a newsworthy week for Orlando City SC, whose huge Saturday crowd flashed some of the MLS credentials owner Phil Rawlins hopes will give them a place in Major League Soccer. The Orlando City owner is confident securing a new stadium will win his team quick approval to be among the four teams MLS adds by 2022. Coming off a season where they averaged 8,197 people per game, many see Orlando as the most MLS-ready market out there. Even the league’s website got in on the marketing (image right, quote below):
“If you were a skeptic about Orlando’s appetite for soccer in their quest to become the next MLS expansion team, the scenes will likely impress you.”
But this, from the Orlando Sentinel, cast some doubt on the Lions’ numbers, with the paper reporting massive inflation of attendance figures at the same time the organization is trying to secure public funding for a new stadium:
Orlando City Soccer Club recently celebrated a milestone: Average attendance at its games surpassed 8,000. But city turnstile records show average attendance was less than half that — at 3,987 …
But there are more than just bragging rights at stake for the Orlando City Lions. The team is lobbying Orlando and Orange County officials for a soccer-specific stadium that would cost $85 million, most of it from public money. It would seat about 18,000 people.
According to Sentinel reporting, on Aug. 11, a club record announced crowd of 10,697 only saw 4,004 pass through the gates. On Aug. 30, a playoff semifinal crowd announced as 8,912 saw 6,731 at the Citrus Bowl.
So did 20,886 really show up in Orlando on Saturday?
Inflation is not uncommon throughout sports, particularly in MLS, where it’s rare venues sell out. Inflation while lobbying for financing to help build an $85 million project? That’s something a lot more troublesome. If the Sentinel’s reporting’s true, the consequence of Orlando City’s exaggerated reporting could be to mislead the public, potentially asking people to believe the team’s a bigger draw than the turnstiles report.
These words from the club don’t help matters:
“We have tried to be as accurate and honest as we can,” team executive Brett Lashbrook said. “I think it’s in line with the industry practice, and in fact it’s more honest than other leagues …
“We are confident that our official attendance figures are an accurate and honest portrayal of the number of people attending our matches,” Lashbrook said.
How can that be? The turnstiles say one thing, but Lashbrook says another. Is he implying there’s massive fence jumping? Perhaps a secret entrance the city is unaware off? Is OCSC leaving a door open, and four thousand people are using it?
The city operates the Citrus Bowl and scans tickets as they come through the turnstiles. Their reporting reflects this. Perhaps Orlando City’s numbers reflect tickets sold (and, very likely, given away), but when you’re tying to fund an 18,000-seat venue, how many people actually come to games it pretty important, as is representing accurate numbers, when it comes to seeking public financing. Orlando is reportedly asking both their city and county to chip in $20 million each toward the cause, but the constituents of neither place may be getting the right information on how valued OCSC is as a community resource.
It’s all a campaign, once in which Saturday’s title may play a significant part. According to other reporting by the Sentinel, Orlando expects local funding to be approved with 30 days. Having a title-winning team generating goodwill in the community won’t hurt their case, even if their final victory came in large part because of curious Dwyer’s addition (see the headline on the linked piece to see how the two stories are already being connected).
The whole situation should also raise eyebrows at MLS. Whether it will or not, we’re unlikely to know.
Orlando’s argument for being one of Major League Soccer’s next four is that they’re ready. They have the fans. They’re going to get the stadium. They have the organization in place.
After the Sentinel’s reporting, however, OCSC’s claims don’t seem as well-founded as we’ve been led to believe. With markets like Miami, Atlanta, Tampa (among others) potential destinations for MLS clubs in the southeast, understanding the true Orlando picture will become all the more important.