While Miami politicians continue to offer up existing stadium sites to David Beckham, and rumors swirl about new sites the soccer icon might or might not be exploring, our Major League Soccer neighbor up the Florida Turnpike, Orlando City SC, opens its inaugural season Sunday against fellow expansion team NYCFC in front of a sellout crowd of 62,000 at the Citrus Bowl.
Yes, you read that right. A standing-room-only full house of 62,000 is expected for the debut of the two expansion clubs, each of which boasts an international superstar. It will make for quite the spectacle as the league enters its 20th season. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 5 p.m.
Brazilian legend Kaká, the former Real Madrid and AC Milan star, and FIFA World Player of the Year, is the marquee player for Orlando. He has scored 183 goals and had 93 assists during his pro career, and though he is 32, he still has the legs and desire to be one of the best players in MLS.
Spanish star David Villa is the headliner for NYCFC. The 33-year-old forward has played for Valencia, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. He is Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer in the World Cup with nine goals, and he won the Silver Boot at the 2010 World Cup.
The New York club is co-owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City, so it is has a big-time feel to it before the team has played a regular-season game. English star Frank Lampard also signed with NYCFC, but he was then loaned to Man City and it is unknown when he will actually join the New York team. There are also rumors Spaniard Xavi could wind up there.
Orlando, by contrast, came up the grassroots route, a former minor-league USL club that grew slowly and steadily. Orlando is coached by Adrian Heath, the same man who coached the team in the USL. The team has a diehard following and two strong supporter groups — Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm. A 19,500-seat stadium is being built downtown for the team, and Walt Disney World recently signed on as a major sponsor.
“The excitement in this city is now immeasurable,” Orlando club president Phil Rawlins told MLS.com. “Our supporters, community and partners have all worked so hard, walking the long road together toward Sunday’s monumental match. We’re thrilled to see the final hurdle overcome and are eager for our squad to take the pitch before 62,000 screaming fans at the Citrus Bowl.
“If we had 80,000 seats, I firmly believe we would have sold all 80,000. The fact is, we don’t yet know the full level of interest we’re generating here. We’re also now looking at selling more than 20,000 tickets per game for the rest of the season, which was our original plan. We’re prepared to sell 30,000 per game, but it could be more. It’s a good problem to have.”
Kaká seems genuinely thrilled to be part of the new team, which also includes U.S. national team player Brek Shea.
“I always wanted to play in MLS, in the United States, and be part of the growth of the sport here,” Kaka told MLS.com. “I am excited to be an ambassador for the league, win the league title and maybe get me back to the Brazilian national team.”
Villa said it would be “unthinkable” to start a Division I club “from zero” in Europe.
His teammates, which include Mix Diskerud of the U.S. national team, have been getting used to playing alongside a world superstar.
“I remember it happened to me when I was young, having to play with players I admired and idolized,” Villa said. “But now that I’ve been here awhile, I think they see me as a normal teammate. They’re not nervous to play with me anymore.”
The debut of these two clubs is the most compelling story line heading into the 2015 MLS season, but there are others:
How will the Los Angeles Galaxy do without retired Landon Donovan, the league’s all-time scoring leader? The Galaxy won the championship three of the past four years, but now it would have to do it without Landon. Robbie Keane is still there, so that sure helps, and Steven Gerrard is due to join sometime in July.
The New York Red Bulls will also have to get by without former key players, as Thierry Henry retired and Tim Cahill went to China. NYCFC has been grabbing much of the spotlight in the Big Apple. Can the Red Bulls get back into the headlines?
Jozy Altidore is back in MLS after a disappointing spell at Sunderland in England. He will play at Toronto FC along with fellow U.S. star Michael Bradley.
The Seattle Sounders have the best fans, the most sellouts and the greatest atmosphere. They also have Clint Dempsey. But they have fallen just short of the MLS title for six years in a row. Is this the year they pull it off? Stay tuned.
English Premier League: Chelsea (63), Manchester City (58), Arsenal (54), Manchester United (53), Liverpool (51).
La Liga: Real Madrid (61), Barcelona (59), Atletico Madrid (54), Valencia (53), Sevilla (46).
Serie A: Juventus (58), Roma (49), Napoli (45), Lazio (43), Fiorentina (42).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (58), Wolfsburg (50), Monchengladbach (40), Leverkusen (36), Schalke (35).
Ligue 1: Lyon (54), PSG and Marseille (53), Monaco (44), ASSE (43).
On the tube
Sunday: Barcelona vs. Rayo Vallecana (7 a.m., BeINSport USA), Orlando City vs. NYCFC (5p.m., ESPN2), Sporting KC vs. NY Red Bulls (7 p.m., Fox Sports1), Seattle vs. New England (9:30p.m., Fox Sports 1).