Thursday night a rivalry was renewed at the USL level. A rivalry that while relatively young is no less intense than most other US-based soccer rivalries which are of course all by global standards, young. It’s as much a rivalry between cities are neighboring geographic areas as it is between clubs and that makes the competition between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando City SC one where the intensity of fans is unmatched in the southeastern United States.
One is a historically large city, the cultural center of Florida which sits across the bay from the sleepiest big city you’ll ever meet (which is actually where the Rowdies play). The other is adolescent formerly agricultural southern town which began rapidly growing after Walt Disney plopped an amusement park in the area but has undergone significant demographic shifts in the last twenty years to become an young, hip urban center. Separated by 75 miles of interstate highway, Tampa Bay versus Orlando might be the most natural rivalry in American soccer outside a single urban area that is not in the Cascadia region.
The metropolitan areas have been in geographic competition for sports teams, tourists, business relocations, new residents, flights to exotic international destinations and foreign capitals and for general supremacy in the state of Florida for most of my lifetime.
Tampa Bay versus Orlando pits on the surface a historic legacy brand, one of the most decorated in the history of American soccer, originally founded in 1975 against a creation of the 2010’s, a franchise relocated from elsewhere. But nostalgia is only worth so much and the Rowdies brand almost disappeared in early 2014 as the club was per sources just weeks away from being folded when St Petersburg Real Estate Investor (among other things) Bill Edwards rescued the club and charted a new ambitious course which now has the club hunting a spot in MLS.
Orlando City SC, on the other hand has been a smashing success since its relocation from Austin in 2010. A USL club that was embraced by the community, Orlando debuted in MLS in 2015 and continues to be a shining star of American soccer. This reality makes many in the Tampa Bay area just slightly envious, which shows anytime Orlando is mentioned around large groups of Rowdies fans.
The day Phil Rawlins announced the relocation of Austin Aztex to Orlando in October 2010, the twitter trolling began between sets of fans. Orlando had organized soccer supporters who were looking forward to a USL team in the city for 2011 – the league had announced a club early in 2010 would kick off in 2011 but it wasn’t until October it became known that the new team was actually a franchise relocation of a club that in the hybrid USSF D2 league had among the best sides in the 2010 season.
Tampa Bay had played in that same league during the 2010 season and had finished 21 points behind Austin, so instantly Orlando had a better team than the Rowdies, also fueling anger among Tampa Bay fans who had been cruelly through a contraction process by MLS in 2001 and had to wait almost a decade for another local pro soccer team.
In 2011, with the USSF D2 hybrid disbanded and surviving clubs picking sides in the NASL-USL battle, Tampa Bay’s decision to align with the NASL rather than locally-based USL meant the two teams were in different leagues.
Tampa Bay had a traditional rivalry with Fort Lauderdale – in 2011, the new NASL’s first season that derby was relaunched with tremendous fanfare. But the reality was that the Fort Lauderdale Strikers never generated enough intense interest beyond a group of maybe 40-50 hard-core fans to be a worthy rival on the scale Tampa Bay deserved.The lack of traveling fans for the Strikers made the rivalry a one sided affair because Rowdies fans would travel in big numbers to South Florida. Fort Lauderdale at least officially averaged more fans than Tampa Bay from 2011 to 2013 but so few of those fans were of the hard-core variety that traveled and are needed to sustain a regional rivalry like this.
So while the Rowdies were more often than not beating up on Fort Lauderdale in NASL, fans of Tampa Bay clamored for a true derby, one with Orlando City SC who were running roughshod over USL opposition.
Their wish was granted as the two teams agreed to home-and-home friendly series in 2013 and 2014 and also happened to play twice in tournaments – the 2013 Disney Pro Soccer Showcase and the 2014 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
Instead of a competitive rivalry, what resulted was a one-sided contest with Orlando City SC winning all six meetings, some by lopsided scorelines. With the final meeting between the teams in 2014 marred by fighting between fan groups on a large scale and Orlando City SC moving to MLS in 2015, the series was cancelled.
The Rowdies plowed on in NASL during the 2015 season and missed out on a playoff spot by two points to the rival Strikers on the last day of the season. Meanwhile Orlando was the toast of MLS, regularly drawing crowds of over 35,000 to the Citrus Bowl – crowds that had not been seen for pro club soccer in Florida on a regular basis since the original Rowdies drew those types of numbers in the late 1970’s.
In 2016, Orlando City opted to field a reserve team in USL. The Rowdies continued in NASL and had to endure the indignity of watching the rival Strikers go to Orlando and beat the MLS’ Lions on their first try in Lamar US Open Cup, several weeks after Tampa Bay had crashed out of the tournament in embarrassing fashion against Columbus. As the season wore on though, rumors began to float that Tampa Bay would leave the NASL for USL and dreams of a revived derby began. Tampa Bay did make the move and a month later announced an MLS bid, making it possible this rivalry could be like the Cascadia ones which began in the lower leagues.
The Rowdies are making all the right moves to join MLS – finally integrating a pyramid underneath the club including affiliation with Tampa Bay United’s youth programs and the launching of a Tampa Bay Rowdies 2 side which is playing in PDL this season. Tampa Bay has arguably the best vista for its ground in American soccer, Al Lang Stadium which sits on Tampa Bay, offering a scenic view of the water out the open end of the ground. These are all positives as MLS is weighing the idea of a return to the bay area heavily.
Meanwhile Orlando City B, the reserve team for the MLS side and the Tampa Bay Rowdies have played twice this season. Both matches have had the intensity of an British derby owing itself partly to the coaches and makeup of the sides – Orlando is coached by Anthony Pulis, the son of Welsh coaching maestro Tony Pulis who currently leads West Bromwich Albion. His opposite number for the Rowdies is Stuart Campbell, a grizzled veteran player of the English lower divisions who came the US in 2012 as a player for the Rowdies and became the club’s Head Coach in 2015. Joe Cole, the most technically gifted English player of his generation plays for Tampa Bay (something that helps to generate crowds wherever the Rowdies go), while Lewis Neal, a favorite of mine when he was at Preston North End and a former MLSer himself is in his third stint with Orlando, now playing and helping to coach the B side.
Thursday’s second meeting between the clubs this season was the first in Orlando City’s new shinning stadium in downtown. Many an Orlando City SC fan has told me they no longer care about this rivalry as they are settled in MLS, while Tampa Bay is simply hoping to join the big boys. But my sense was it did matter to both sets of fans, even if it does mean more right now to the Rowdies supporters.
The match was a physical affair and had a derby flavor to it in the crowd. Englishman Martin Patterson, famously released by Orlando City SC in MLS missing a flight home from New York City and subsequently missing training scored the Rowdies goal in the first half. Orlando dominated the second half and got a late equalizer from the spot from young Sheffield-born Danny Deakin, who is well-known in this country for his stint with Detroit City FC, a favorite of many non-league soccer fans in the US. The match ended 1-1.
Leaving the stadium, I sensed a satisfaction among the Orlando faithful. They had clearly outplayed the Rowdies expensively-assembled squad by USL standards with their reserve team and managed to avoid defeat late on. Moreover they were able to show off their beautiful downtown stadium, one of the three best Soccer-Specific-Stadiums in the country in my opinion to the rival fans.
This rivalry is real – in an era of manufactured MLS, NASL or USL created rivalries with phony sounding names, this one grew organically from the minute the Austin Aztex moved to Orlando. Even at the USL level and even when it involves Orlando’s reserve team, the derby lives and that makes it one of the few incredibly spirited rivalries in American pro soccer.