Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Orlando Lions: Part 1 (Vision - 1986)

Not only are neon shirts and aviators glasses back in style, but there is a professional soccer team here in Orlando who are nicknamed the Lions. They have held their own against first division European teams, are trying to join the highest levels of American soccer, and would eventually like to build a soccer specific stadium. Sure sounds like 1985 all over again. Orlando has had a rich history of soccer, from being a featured city for the 1994 World Cup, playing host to several international friendly competitions, and a having several college level programs. Orlando City is coming off a tremendous inaugural season in USL PRO and with their sights firmly fixed on gaining membership into Major League Soccer we thought it would be great to look back at the history of the Orlando Lions. Over the next few weeks we will jump in our soccer DeLorean and travel back in time to a time when soccer in Orlando was just getting started. Hopefully these articles will bring back fond memories for Lions fans of old and help fill in some of the history of the team for new fans. We have old pictures, game programs, and lots of information to share, enjoy.

Orlando Lions - Part 1 (Vision - 1986)

Mark Dillon was a visionary

When Mark Dillon moved to Orlando in 1983 to coach the Rollins College Tars soccer team, he liked what he saw. The greater Orlando area’s population was booming and soccer at the youth level was gaining in popularity not just in central Florida, but nationwide. At that time there were 8.5 million Americans playing soccer and youth soccer had just eclipsed baseball as the number one participatory sport.

Local youth and college teams were also enjoying success nationally. Either Florida International University or the University of Tampa played in the NCAA Men’s Division II National Championship game for 6 consecutive years, from 1980-1985. Meanwhile, the UCF Women’s team was runners up to powerhouse University of North Carolina in the first two Women’s National Championship games held in 1981 and 1982.

However, not everything was well with soccer in America at that time. The North American Soccer League (NASL), the professional outdoor soccer league for the United States and Canada since 1968, had just closed its doors in March of 1985. The reasons for the failure were numerous, but the majority of them were due to mismanagement. Essentially, the league tried to get too big, too fast while chasing after Pele and the New York Cosmos. This led to overexpansion, inordinate franchise start-up fees, and teams spending millions on aging foreign stars. Compounding these problems was the fact that the men running these new teams had no understanding or passion for the beautiful game.

Despite all of this, Dillon believed that Orlando was capable of being a hotbed of soccer in America. He had a vision of a professional soccer team in Orlando playing in a soccer specific stadium in front of 15,000 fans. He also dreamed of building world class facilities in Orlando that would attract professional teams from Europe to train here during the offseason.

Recognizing the factors that ultimately lead to the demise of the NASL, Dillon planned to build the team slowly and initial use local amateur high school and college players. By providing local, recognizable players he was hoping to slowly create a team that fans would identify with. Additionally, these local high school and college amateur players did not need to be paid, which made them cheap. Dillon also proposed starting a semi-professional southern soccer league composed of previous professional teams like the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ft. Lauderdale Strikers – both of the recently folded NASL. This would greatly reduce travel costs, and would easily allow fans to travel and support their team at away games, which would in turn help develop rivalries.

Dillon understood what was going to work for soccer in America and had the vision and passion to make it happen.

F.C. Orlando and the Amateur Lions

What was initially missing was a development system for young players, and a professional team to aspire to. So, in 1985, Dillon teamed up with Lake Howell High School soccer coach Steve Nash and founded Football Club (F.C.) Orlando, with the Orlando Lions being the top competitive team.

And according to plan, the Lions were made up of current and former local amateur college players, primarily from UCF and Rollins College. They started to practice together at the beginning of the New Year in January of 1986 and had their first official match six weeks later, on February 22, 1986 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

On paper, the rag-tag amateur Lions were no match for the Rowdies composed of professional players with an estimated 120 years of professional experience on the roster. On the field, it was another story as the Lions were lifted by the unexpectedly high turnout of 4,200 fans at Lake Brantley High School Stadium and had numerous scoring opportunities. Unfortunately, an early Geoff Wegerle goal was the only scoring in the match and the Lions lost 1-0. Even though Dillon would have loved to win the game, he was still pleased – the Lions were competitive and the strong turnout showed that there was a market for professional soccer in Central Florida.

The next scheduled matches were against the League of Ireland First Division Champion Bray Wanderers and Arbroath F.C. of the Scottish Second Division (and world record holder for largest win margin in professional football history with a score of 36-0 back in 1885!). To everyone’s surprise, the Lions came out on top in both games:  2-0 against Bray Wanderers and 1-0 against Arbroath, for their first and second wins as a club.

Buoyed by the Bray and Arbroath matches, Dillon felt confident going into the “Orlando Against the World Soccer Challenge Series” which ran from May to June, 1986 and pitted the Lions against Hamburg (German Bundesliga), Glentoran F.C. (Irish Premier League), Dundee United F.C. (Scottish Premier Division), the Canadian Men’s National Team, and a North American Soccer League All-Star Team. All of these teams were playing exceptionally well at the time – Hamburg were German Bundesliga Runners-up and German Cup Champions in 1986/87, Glentoran were Irish Premier League Champions 1987/88 and Irish Cup Champions from 1984-1988, Dundee United were Scottish and UEFA Cup Runners-up in 1986/87, and the Canadian National Team were crowned CONCACAF Champions in 1985 and had just finished playing in the 1986 World Cup. The upstart amateur Lions kept all five games close, but ended up losing four of the matches – two by a score of 0-1 – and tying Hamburg 1-1 in the other match.

The Lions followed the tournament up by playing the Rowdies for a second time. Again, the Lions had the majority of scoring opportunities, but could not find the final touch in a game that was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation. Using the NASL style shootout system, the more experienced Rowdies came through with the victory 3-2.

With this respectable showing against world-class competition, the Lions went on a four game win streak against international sides to close out the season. These high scoring games included a 4-1 thumping of Oxford (England), a 4-3 win against National Westminster (England), a high scoring win against SV Wehen Weisbaden (Germany) with a score of 5-4, and victory 3-1 against Universidad Catolica Argentina in the season finale.

At the end of their first season, the Orlando Lions went 6-5-1 against a formidable schedule that included first division squads from all over the world. These results were all the more impressive when you took into consideration the shoestring budget the amateur team was working under. The Lions were delivering results and gaining credibility. They now had to find a league to play in.


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