Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Orlando Lions: Part 3 (1988)

The home opener for Orlando City is just one month from today and as we have been doing for the last several months we continue our look back at the original Orlando Lions. If you haven't had a chance to read Part 1 (Vision - 1986) and Part 2 (1987) make sure to check out those articles and get up to speed. As the Lions enjoyed some success in their first two seasons the real job was just beginning in 1988 when the team joined the American Soccer League (ASL). "The Professor" has dug through his Orlando soccer archives to come up with more programs and pictures from the days professional soccer first came to "the city beautiful". As talk of MLS expansion still runs wild through the city it is important to remember that professional soccer has been in Central Florida for a long time. We're excited to bring you the next installment in the series.

Orlando Lions: Part 3 (1988)

In just over two years, the Orlando Lions had gone from a group of local college soccer amateurs to a member of the newly established American Soccer League (ASL) – the highest level of professional soccer in North America at the time. To make this leap, visionary and F.C. Orlando’s founder Mark Dillon had to give up majority ownership of the team to soccer investment group SSI out of Tallahassee. Part of the agreement was leaving Mark Dillon on as President and Head Coach of his Orlando Lions.

The ASL was composed of teams from the East Coast of the United States split into two divisions – the Northern and the Southern. The Lions would compete in the Southern Division with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, the Miami Sharks, and the Washington Diplomats. The Northern Division would consist of the Albany Capitals, the Boston Bolts, the Maryland Bays, the New Jersey Eagles, and the Washington Stars. The first season consisted of twenty games, but with a truly unbalanced schedule. To reduce travel costs, teams would play the other four teams in their division three times during the year, with at least one game at home. The other eight games were against teams from the other division, with three of those being a home and away series and the other two being a single match either played home or away.

For the most part, the ASL followed FIFA rules. However, it decided that the American Soccer Fan would not have to go home at the end of the night with the terrible taste of a tie in their mouths, by requiring all games that ended in a draw after 90 minutes go directly into penalty kicks to determine a winner. In this winner takes all system, teams would be awarded three points for a win and zero points for the loss towards league standings. At the end of the season, the top two teams from each division would qualify for the playoffs.

Other league guidelines included a $75,000 salary cap and maximum roster size of 18 players. Obviously the players did not quit their day jobs and truly played for the love of the game. Of those 18 players, it restricted the number of foreign players to 3 per team for the first year and only 2 the following. It put this restriction in place to help build local American talent. The Orlando Lions took this local element to heart, with 12 of their 18 players having played college locally. They also had a British feel, with four of the players born in England and one born in Scotland.

The first two players signed by the Orlando Lions were forward Rony Francois, the top scorer for the Lions from UCF, and defender Mike Garvanian, the previous year’s Captain from Rollins College. Other standouts included defender Louis Karbiener, midfielders Oyvind Klausen and Mark Francis, and striker Mark Lamb. The Lions started the season with Daniel Cordia out of UCF in net, having lost Winston DuBose back to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the offseason.

The Lions would play Orlando’s first ever professional soccer match at home in the Citrus Bowl on April 9, 1988 against the New Jersey Eagles. There were 3,113 excited fans for the inaugural ASL match, the majority watching a professional soccer game for the first time. The Lions were also uncharacteristically caught up in the moment, playing sloppy and easily giving up possession. The Eagles took advantage of the Lion’s nervy play, with scoring by future U.S. Men’s National Team players Peter Vermes and Jorge Acosta, to win 2-0.

Their second game would be again at home nine days later against the Albany Capitals. In front of 2,092 fans, Orlando outshot Albany 19-8 and Mark Lamb scored the first goal in Orlando professional soccer history. However, Albany would make the most of their chances and put two past Lion’s keeper Cordia to win 2-1. Despite being the better side on the night and deserving the win, the Lions found themselves with an 0-2 record and zero points on the season.

Orlando would not have much time to regroup; they would play the Tampa Bay Rowdies five days later, again at home in the Citrus Bowl. With the support of 4,216 fans, the Lions were able to overtake the Rowdies in penalties 5-4 after finishing the game tied at 1-1. It was the first professional win in Orlando history and it came against our biggest rival. Things were looking up for the Lions.

Things were looking way up. After the Tampa Bay game, the Lions brought in the most decorated player to ever play for Orlando – Scottish goalkeeper Alan Rough. Before coming to Orlando, Rough had won a Scottish League Cup, played in over 600 Scottish Premier Division games, and was Scotland’s most capped goalkeeper, representing his country in 3 World Cups. He would get his first action with the Lions on a road trip to play the Boston Bolts and Washington Diplomats.

Unfortunately, Rough was not able to score goals as well as mind the net. Despite only letting in one goal in each of the games, the Lions could only put one ball past the opposing keeper and the Lions lost both games, leaving them with a 1-4 record. The next game was Rough’s home debut against recent foe Washington Diplomats and Orlando was in desperate need of a run of games to keep pace in the league.

With less than 10 minutes left against the Dips, the Lions scored off a lucky deflection and won the game 1-0. It was spark the Lions were looking for as they went 4-1 over their next five games, bringing their record to 6-5 and putting them in playoff contention. Their lone defeat over this stretch was a 1-5 beat down by Ft. Lauderdale at home. Ft. Lauderdale would prove to be a tough opponent, beating the Lions in their next two games as Orlando went on a four game losing streak. This included a Fourth of July away game at Tampa Stadium that Orlando lost 0-1 in front of 18,246 fans!

Despite the losing skid, the Lions (6-9, 18 pts) were still only one win out of second place in the competitive Southern Division. The final five games would be critical if the Lions were to make the post season. It was right at this critical moment that the Lions were dealt a blow – F.C. Orlando and Lion founder, Mark Dillon resigned as President and Head Coach. The man with the soccer vision for Orlando walked away from his creation.

At first it was reported that Dillon left due to health reasons, but it was later explained that there were differences with management. Dillon claimed that SSI were more concerned with financial statements than with the team it put on the field. This was not part of Dillon’s vision and left him with no choice but to leave.

Dillon’s resignation was a shock to the players who now had to regroup under Assistant Coach John Higgins. And when it rains, it storms. Starting keeper Alan Rough injured his wrist and would not be available for the all important final five games. The wounded Lions would give their all, but could only pull out wins in their two home games, losing the other three away games to finish the season 8-12 with 24 points, which left them in 4th place in the Southern Division. The Ft. Lauderdale Strikers would win the Southern Division with a 14-6 record and 42 points, but would lose in the ASL final to the Washington Diplomats who had finished 2nd in the Southern Division.

Even with the depressing end to the season, the Orlando Lions had a lot to be proud of. They had a winning record (6-4) at the Citrus Bowl with an average home attendance of 2,712 fans, which was just above the ASL average of 2,500. They had a 2-1 record during the year against both the Miami Sharks and their rival Tampa Bay Rowdies. They had two representatives on the ASL all-star team, keeper Alan Rough and sweeper Lou Karbiener. Forward Mark Lamb finished 3rd in the league for scoring with 8 goals. They had a Tour of Scotland planned for September, where they would be playing against the Glasgow Celtics. And they had another season of professional soccer in just a few short months!

3 comments :

  1. I was wondering. Does anybody have any sort of video from the original Lions?

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  2. Great question Jeff. The Professor and I will look into it to see if we can find any old Beta or VHS of the original Lions. If we find some we'll convert it and post it on the site.

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  3. Mark Dillon would have it if it exists. He would definitely have some from the early 90's teams.

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