Arguably the biggest trend in Major League Soccer over the last half decade, off the field at least, has been the massive success of clubs in the southeast. Atlanta United have quickly risen to the top of MLS in terms of sheer size, boasting every attendance record and the largest presence or fanbase of any team in league history. Nashville has built a strong and loyal fanbase and are set to open the largest soccer-specific stadium in American history. And now, Charlotte FC are approaching an MLS-record attendance for their season opener and have realistic aims at over 30,000 fans per game this season.
The off-the-field success in the south has been unbelievable for MLS, but it all started here, in Orlando.
Back in 2015, Orlando City set the American soccer world on fire by drawing huge crowds to now Camping World Stadium. The club's first match drew over 60,000 fans and the team averaged over 30,000 fans over its first two seasons in MLS. Orlando gained notoriety around the league for one of the best fanbases in around, anchored by an incredible gallery of supporter's sections.
That led to 2017 where the club opened the brand new, soccer-specific stadium now known as Exploria Stadium. It's a beautiful venue that features a world-class free-standing supporter's section and it's in a convenient location in downtown Orlando. Attendance was great again in 2017, but in the three (we don't count 2020) years since, that has started to decline.
It's undeniable that those huge crowds that defined early Orlando City, and now define the rest of the clubs in the southeast, are starting to fade. In 2021, Orlando never even hit the 20,000 mark in a game, per FBRef. Yes, we're still in a pandemic and COVID fears are undeniable and understandable, but Orlando's didn't reach the heights of other similar sized clubs like the Philadelphia Union or Nashville SC.
With Charlotte making a huge splash and Miami working on improving its stadium situation, Orlando's relative attendance issues could be an issue. This could be a total blip. Maybe numbers were low purely because of COVID and as people become even more comfortable in 2022, we'll see plenty of games clear the 20,000 mark, but work needs to be done to make that happen.
Orlando City can be massive in the city of Orlando and the state of Florida. I moved to Orlando right as the club moved to MLS, and I remember the hype around the team in the early years. Even now, Orlando City is a big deal, but that has to tangibly manifest. If Orlando City are going to be an elite club in MLS and help the league push to even higher heights, the club has to do a better job of filling the stadium and creating a buzz about the team.
The new ownership group has addressed this issue in full (thanks in part to the good folks over at The Mane Land) and they know the club needs to improve its relationship with fans and the community. Once the newness wore off on Orlando City, the energy died down a little bit. This is a club with huge potential, even if Orlando isn't a huge market. We've seen how big this club can be, and let's hope the Wilfs and the club can make sure Orlando City holds its place amongst the new giants of southeastern soccer.