A whole new ball game in the MLS

GV Citrus Bowl

The mercury lingered close to ninety degrees Fahrenheit despite the onset of evening. Bolts of lightning flickered across the sky. The freakish weather conditions suggested this was not going to be like any club football match I had ever been to. I had decided to forsake the delights of Downtown Disney for Orlando’s slightly grimier suburbs for a taste of the MLS. The idea was to gain an insight into what lies ahead for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and supporters tempted to take a trip across the pond to watch them play.

There was familiar sense of anticipation among Orlando’s purple clad hordes on the approach to their cavernous home ground the Citrus Bowl. Their team was entertaining Colorado Rapids. Orlando Soccer Club’s main attraction is the Brazilian superstar Kaka. Colorado boasted the more modest talents of former Wolves and Reading striker Kevin Doyle. Once inside the stadium, the differences between this and the Premier League started to become more immediately apparent. Football themed concession stands offered up pre match chilli dogs and nachos. We were shown to our seats by a charming member of staff from “guest services” who cheerily encouraged us to enjoy our evening.The match kicked off. Much of Orlando’s play naturally went through Kaka. Any threat he posed was snuffed out though as Colorado Rapids defended narrowly, although one header from him flashed across the face of goal.

Thousands of home fans wore shirts sporting the Brazilian’s name.The stadium features a “Supporters’ Section” where more boisterous fans let rip with chanting and flag waving. It was an artificial way of generating atmosphere. The area where I was sitting was more genteel surrounded by families who offered more measured encouragement. They demonstrated a decent knowledge of the game though. Many expressed frustration when their team failed to commit more men into the box when they had possession in promising areas.

The top two tiers of the 65-thousand capacity stadium were closed but the rest of the ground was pretty full. Three giant HD television screens showed pin sharp replays of the key moments of which there were few in a quiet first half.

Things were to improve for the home team. They hit the post but a  goal was coming. Orlando’s coach Adrian Heath, still recognisable from his playing pomp at Everton, was an increasingly animated presence on the touchline. Colorado could sense the tension. A rash challenge led to a booking. “Ladies and gentlemen, the referee has issued a yellow card to number 27 Ramos,” the PA announcer helpfully interjected.

Kyle Larin tapped in from close range to give Orlando the lead. The moment the home supporters had been waiting for then duly arrived. Kaka received the ball in the inside right position and produced a slide rule finish into the far corner. The ground erupted. There were no visiting fans. They don’t seem to feature much in the American game due to the vast distances between most MLS clubs.

A light aircraft braved the thunder and dodged the lightning to deliver a message from the sponsors. “We are hot for Kaka”, the neon sign on the underside of the fuselage spelled out.

Gerrard and Lampard  – not to mention visiting supporters from Europe – will find a very different and evolving football culture in the U.S.A. Kaka and a few others aside, the standard is not up to Premier League level but two of England’s finest are sure to be greeted as heroes by their respective new clubs. The other good news is that they are unlikely to play in 90 degree heat  – at least, not every single week.

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