Orlando City Soccer Club has a new contender in the Southeast beginning with the 2017 MLS season. This article will go into a side-by-side comparison of each club, touching on everything from the head coach to the stadiums and supporters groups.
It is already clear Atlanta United Football Club is going to have a huge fan base in Major League Soccer, possibly contending with the likes of the West Coast soccer cities such as the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders. The last announcement made by President Darren Eales had the season ticket holder count at over 22,000, setting a new record for an expansion team. Without even being close to a full roster, the number is only expected to grow as new announcements and signings are made.
Orlando City has proven its fan base with great attendance numbers averaging 31,762 fans as of September 17th, 2016. For the second year in a row, they brought back their #FillTheBowl social media campaign, and did just that, bringing in over 60,000 fans for the home opener against Real Salt Lake. They have already sold out their 18,000 seating capacity for season ticket holders for the 2017 season and have a running waiting list for 2018.
In regards to a social media following, Orlando City is crushing Atlanta United with 257.8k Twitter followers compared to 104.4K. On Instagram, Orlando has 189K compared to Atlanta’s 24.6K. It is important to note that Orlando’s advantage may simply be because of their two years in the league along with their previous years in the USL. Atlanta has only had official accounts since their inception in April of 2014 and still has a long way to go in regards to social media exposure.
Orlando City has had two head coaches in their short MLS history. In July of this season, Adrian Heath was replaced by Jason Kreis, only 8 games into the 2016 campaign. Heath had failed to make the playoffs in 2015 and was leading the league in draws, teetering the red line to be in playoff contention. Formerly NYCFC coach, Jason Kreis was announced as the new head coach after almost 9 months of inactivity. With a resume including an MLS Cup, a 111-87-69 record with RSL, and a CONCACAF Champions League Final appearance, he was let go from NYCFC after failing to make the playoffs in 2015. Since taking over, Kreis has not fared much better than Heath, still leading the league in ties and three points out of playoff contention, as of September 26.
Rumors have been swirling about the first Atlanta United head coach for some time now. President Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra have made it clear that AUFC is not messing around when it comes to bringing in the best. Names thrown around include Sigi Schmid, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, and former Everton manager Roberto Martinez. While the long list of foreign managers failing in MLS is a concern, one thing is clear. The team is looking for experience. Nothing United has done so far has been cookie cutter in regards to expansion teams, and it would be no surprise if they decided to bring in a big name such as former Barcelona and Argentina head coach, Tata Martino. Multiple sources have reported that he is adjusting his staff to make the move and all that is needed is the signature on the dotted line.
The current home of Orlando City SC is Camping World Stadium located just outside downtown Orlando, formally known as the Citrus Bowl. In 2017, the Lions will play in a brand-new, soccer-specific stadium located in the heart of the city right next to the downtown bar district and the Amway Center (home of NBA’s Orlando Magic). The naming rights have not yet been announced, but the project is 100% privately funded and expected to have a 10,000 square foot fan plaza. The seating will cap at 25,500 and have an overhead canopy to provide shelter from harsh weather and amplify crowd noise. Possibly one of the best things about the new stadium is that the grass will be all natural, an important consideration to many players and fans. Expected cost is around $155 million.
Atlanta United and Falcons owner Arthur Blank also shelled out big money to construct a brand new stadium in the downtown district. Located right next to the Phillips Arena (home of NBA’s Atlanta Hawks) and the Georgia World Congress Center, Mercedes-Benz Stadium broke ground on May 14th, 2014 and is set to finish construction summer of 2017. Although not soccer specific, this new state of the art stadium is going to be a world spectacle seating 70,000 and costing over 1 billion dollars. It will have a retractable roof, artificial turf, and will be equipped with a technology that allows the upper level seats to be covered and create a more intimate experience for fans. They will offer a “fan-first” menu including $2 hot dogs and $5 domestic beer.
The most recognizable name and Designated Player for OCSC is Kaka, making a salary of over 7 million dollars. While he has not made the impact on the field such as other big name DP’s like NYCFC’s David Villa, Kaka is vital in terms of marketability and leadership. Their starting forward is Cycle Larin, the 2015 Rookie of the Year and 2016’s #1 on MLS’s Top 24 Under 24 list. Bryan Rochez and Carlos Rivas take the other two DP spots for the Lions. The roster includes nine internationals and four Homegrown Players. Other recognizable names include defender Brek Shea, Brazilian striker Julio Baptista, and goalkeeper Joe Bendik.
With only seven signed players on the Atlanta United roster, fans patiently await the inevitable announcements of new signings and the Expansion Draft taking place on December 13, 2016. Currently with only one DP, Héctor Villalba, the rumor mill has been filled with international stars names floating around including Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Andrés Guardado. The first team has announced their first Homegrown Player as Andrew Carleton and three internationals including Jeffrey Otoo, Kenwyne Jones, and Chris McCann.
The Atlanta United Academy hit the ground running almost immediately after the first team announcement. The academy currently has five teams: U-12, U-13, U-14, U-16, and U-18. They have already signed their first Homegrown Player, Andrew Carleton and named the head coaching team in August 2016 including director Richard Money and manager Tony Annan. The club has expressed its desire for a top-flight academy in order to develop players from a young age and eventually be able to feed the youth stars into the first team.
Orlando City’s Academy hosts both boys and girls because of their affiliation with the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. In terms of scope, OCSC’s Academy is much larger offering a club funded U.S. Soccer Development Academy as well as an ECNL program. This past year, U.S. Soccer awarded them with the Most Improved Club Award and Orlando has made a clear commitment to develop their young talent. OCSC signed Tommy Redding as their first Homegrown Player in March of 2014, before they made the switch to MLS. Currently the first team has 4 Homegrown Players on the roster including Redding, Tyler Turner, Harrison Heath, and goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar.
Terminus Legion, Resurgence, and Footie Mob are three groups who have emerged as the biggest and most influential supporters’ groups for AUFC so far. They are fully organized and making a commitment to contend with likes of the Timbers Army and Emerald City Supporters. Some common themes are their grassroots initiatives and commitment to keep the support 100% positive. Unlike some other MLS supporters groups, they want to stay away from any and all discrimination, vulgar chants, and violence. Terminus Legion closed 2015 with almost 600 paying members, a year and a half away from their first game. The club has already announced they have sold 3,000 tickets in the supporter’s section directly behind the goal. It is apparent that Atlanta United is going to have a supporter’s section that will contend with the best of them.
Orlando City SC recognizes two supporters groups with permission to use flags/tifos, drums, smoke etc. The Iron Lion Firm and The Ruckus have over 12K combined followers on Twitter and show tremendously well during games as a collective group known as “The Wall.” Although OC has their recognized groups agree to the Fan Code of Conduct, a select few Orlando City supporters have gotten a reputation of being vulgar using inappropriate chants and throwing obscene gestures to the players and cameras. Outside of this, the supporters consistently create a fun and intense atmosphere with coordinated chants, creative tifos, and fun game traditions the whole crowd can join in on.
With Atlanta United as the new expansion team entering the league, a new rivalry will be born. Location makes it an obvious one, but fans from each side have already expressed their feelings on multiple occasions that it will be intense and deeper than just proximity. As to who will take the glory on the field, we will have to wait until March…