A New Goal: The Orlando Pride brings women into the city’s soccer craze

By : Samantha Rosenthal
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The Orlando Pride

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“Everybody knows our team. You see magnets of our teams on people’s cars, and it’s great to see people embracing our team. People come up to me on the street and say they’re coming to the home opener and they know us. It’s great to always feel that vibe from the city,” Orlando Pride attacking midfielder Lianne Sanderson says.

Deemed as the “Soccer Capital of the South”, Orlando’s soccer community has been present and growing since October 2010, when Phil Rawlins first announced that he had acquired the Orlando City Soccer Club with his hopes of expanding it into the MLS within three to five years. Six year later, and not only has that happened, but Orlando is adding women’s soccer to its list of growing professional sports teams: the Orlando Pride, Florida’s first National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team. The response so far has been predictably effusive.

“As a season ticket holder, I could not be more excited about the Orlando Pride,” Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, the city’s first LGBT commissioner (currently serving her fifth term), says in a statement to Watermark. “Women’s sports helped me gain confidence and taught the meaning of teamwork. And now we have these amazing World Cup players in our home stadium. What an absolute thrill it will be there on opening day. Go Pride! And, well, I love the logo, too.”

The logo includes the historic Lake Eola fountain, an icon in Sheehan’s downtown district. Its inclusion reflects the fact that downtown Orlando is stretching its infrastructural cleats to house the growing soccer boom among other “live, work, play” boosterism concerns. Through some complex financing, approximately $155 million is being spent to build a 26,000-seat home for the sport just south of downtown. Orlando City will join the Citrus Bowl, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Amway Center (plus its proposed, adjacent sports-and-entertainment complex) in the downtown leisure boom, though Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says recent controversies surrounding public dollars are unlikely to hinder the progress of soccer in Orlando – or the stadium that will house it in the future. As he understands it, the $20 million that was supposed to play into a public-private partnership deal is likely being redirected by the county to the Dr. Phillips Center.

“It has nothing to do with the soccer stadium, anymore,” Dyer says, confidently, adding, “I think it’s pretty cool that Orlando has become the soccer capital of the U.S.”

The City Beautiful is stepping out and ready to get dirty.

Growing Pains
Phil Rawlins announced at Lake Eola in Downtown Orlando on October 20, 2015, that the club would be acquiring a NWSL expansion team, making it the 10th team in the league. The team’s name, logo and colors were announced at that press conference, along with the head coach: former head coach of the Australia and U.S. national teams Tom Sermanni.

“Even though it’s the same sport, men and women’s soccer have kind of different audiences, so all it’s going to do is bring in another section of soccer fans,” Orlando journalist, soccer fan and correspondent for the Women’s World Football Show podcast Michelle Stiles says.

Not even a week after announcing the creation of the Orlando Pride team, the first player acquisitions were announced: Sarah Hagen, Kaylyn Kyle and U.S. Women’s National team superstar forward Alex Morgan.

“Alex Morgan is such a role model for younger women and younger soccer players in America that just having Alex Morgan there brings such a level of credibility to the team, because people are willing to travel just to see [her],” Stile says.

Morgan, it should be noted, joined four other professional soccer players in an Equal Opportunity Commission complaint in late March regarding the inequality of pay between male and female World Cup champion soccer players.

“I think we’ve proven our worth over the years,” complainant Carli Lloyd, who was the 2015 FIFA women’s player of the year, told NBC’s Today show in March. “Just coming off a World Cup win, the pay disparity between the men and women is just too large.” On average, according to ESPN, though the women’s league exceeds the men’s often in revenue, the female players are often paid “four times less.” Negotiations are in process.

The Orlando Pride team has its full roster, a star-studded lineup that features other national soccer stars, including U.S. Women’s National team player and Central Florida native Ashlyn Harris. Harris, who is Orlando Pride’s goalkeeper, was vocal about playing in Orlando when she heard of the official announcement of an NWSL expansion team, and Orlando Pride ended up drafting her as their second pick through the NWSL Expansion Draft. Orlando Pride defender Toni Pressley is also another Central Florida native recruited to the team, hailing from Melbourne, Fla.

“We’re still a very new group, but I thought today there was a lot better [of an] understanding among the players and a lot more cohesion,”Sermanni said after the team’s final preseason game April 2.

OrlandoPrideCapThe Orlando Pride team roster welcomes six international players, including Australian National Team players Steph Catley and Laura Alleway, who joined the Orlando Pride for training on April 1. Sermanni says the preseason has been disruptive. It’s understandable, considering many of the players assuming their international duties, but it remains something the team has to work through as a whole. He says that the Orlando Pride will need to overcome that and realize the team will not be its “finished product” for some time.

Orlando Pride held its first training session March 14, but the team hasn’t had a training session yet where all the team’s players have been present as of press time.

“We knew that from day one it was going to be a challenge for us, not just being a new team, but the fact that the preseason is really short, and the fact that our international players have been coming and going. In reality, we won’t have our full squad of players together until we actually get to Portland,” Sermanni says.

During the team’s final preseason game and first time playing on their home turf, Sanderson scored the only goal in the 24th minute before the game was called after only 32 minutes due to lightning.Sermanni says Sanderson will be a very critical player for the team for the upcoming inaugural season.

And while, like Sermanni, many admire Sanderson for her skills and dedication to the sport, other fans admire Sanderson because of her openness about her sexuality and for being her truest form of herself.

Putting the proud in the Pride
“I knew from the age of 5 that I wanted to be a professional soccer player, and there wasn’t even a league at that time, and it was kind of unheard of for a female to play professional soccer,” 28-year-old Sanderson says. “I just knew from the age of 5 years old, that’s what I wanted to be and there was nothing that was going to stop me from doing it.”

Sanderson played for Arsenal in England for 12 years, starting at age 9. She made her professional debut for Arsenal at 14, and then at 21 moved to Chelsea and joined the Chelsea Ladies team to play there for a year. By the time she was 18 years old, Sanderson had been a part of a team that had won the Quadruple (FA Women’s Premier League, FA Women’s Cup, FA Women’s League Cup and UEFA Women’s Cup), a crowning achievement for such a young player.

“Soccer is our religion in my family, and in England, it is certainly our only sport that we really have. There [are] other sports, but soccer is No. 1,” Sanderson says.

Sanderson originally came to the U.S. to play in 2010 when she was acquired in the WPS international Draft by the Philadelphia Independence. She’s been playing in America for the almost six years now, only going back to Arsenal briefly last year for the World Cup to play for England’s National Team.

Sanderson describes her decision to play in the U.S. (initially in Philadelphia) as a defining moment in her career and the best decision she ever made.

“I think the way the mentality is here, the winning mentality, and how kind and pleasant people are – I feel like there’s a lot of people who want you to succeed and embrace my individuality,” Sanderson says.“I feel that’s why I love it here so much.”

Sanderson is also openly gay, she says, and has never been one to hide her sexuality, her personal life and her concurrent job of being a role model for LGBT soccer fans across the globe. Though these attributes may not define her athletic performance, they’re certainly embedded in her drive to succeed.

“It’s something I don’t really think about that much,” Sanderson says about being an LGBT role model and advocate within the international soccer community.“A lot of people Tweet me and send me messages, and I get letters and stuff like that from people saying how much they appreciate the fact I am who I am, and I’m always open to people. I think for me, it’s always important to always be who you are and be you.”

“I’m lucky that I come from a family who embraces me for who I am and has accepted me for who I am. I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of ‘Oh, I’m gay and everybody needs to know.’ I think it’s about being proud of who you are,” she says.

Sanderson says she gets messages daily via fan interactions online and otherwise about how much people look up to her and appreciate her being her true authentic version of herself. She always responds to people, because she believes it’s important. She’s open about her romantic life online for just this reason.

“I’ll help anyone that I can,” Sanderson says. “If me being who I am helps people, then I’ll do as much as I can with that. Because for me, the way that I am comes naturally.”

As the opening game draws near, Orlando Pride hopes to pull in many different demographics to the games, including the LGBT community. The Orlando City men’s team held an LGBT night last year on October 3, 2015, against the Montreal Impact.Likewise, the Orlando City Soccer Club hosted an Orlando City Zone at the Come Out With Pride 2015 festival as a silver-level sponsor. Stile hopes that the Orlando Pride will host a similar LGBT night for their inaugural season.

“Female members of the LGBT community seem to really like women’s soccer, so it’s kind of like they’re a huge segment of the demographic and audience the Orlando Pride will aim to come to their game,” Stile says. “They’re just massive supporters, members of the LGBT community.”

Wearing the Crown
Orlando Pride officially announced Orlando Pride’s first supporter club The Crown on Feb. 3. The club will fall under the Orlando City Soccer Club’s “The Wall” and will join the ranks of the other three supporter clubs that Orlando City has: Ruckus, Iron Lion Firm and Harbor City Hooligans.

“Our focus, mainly, is to bring together everybody to support the women’s team in a family friendly environment, on the field and off the field,” Crown founder and president Lisa Raymond says. “We want to be there to support them while they’re on the field by cheering, chanting and singing.”

The plans for a Pride supporters’ club started in Nov. 2015, and membership launched in December 2015. Raymond gathered 50 people, who are the founding members, and they invested money and time to get the supporter club going. She pulled together the governing documents and worked with the founding members on defining what they wanted to group to be about.

The Crown currently has 297 members, and that doesn’t include honorary members like Phil and Kay Rawlins, Orlando Pride members and coach Sermanni.

“I know that Lianne Sanderson and a couple of other players came around to the tailgating we had going on for the MLS game,” Raymond says. “We gave her a scarf, and she’s been very receptive on social media.”

For the upcoming inaugural season, Raymond hopes to expand the supporter club to celebrate soccer and the Orlando community off the field by getting involved with local charities. The group will hold festivities for game days that will be geared toward all ages. For Orlando Pride’s first game of the season April 17, The Crown will host a watch party at Graffiti Junktion in Downtown Orlando. For the April 23 opening home game, The Crown will be tailgating in Lot 11 of the Citrus Bowl.

“I have six kids, and the only thing we can all agree on is Orlando City and soccer,” Raymond says. “All of us have different things – my husband likes the Detroit Tigers and I like the Yankees; we like Syracuse Basketball and he likes something else. So we’ve never been able to come together except Orlando City.”

Kicking toward the goal
As the inaugural season and opening game steadily approach, Orlando Pride aims to make its mark prior to the regular season with a 4-0-0 preseason record. The team prepares to make its national debut on April 17 in Portland against the Portland Thorns FC followed by its home debut April 23 at the Orlando Citrus Bowl against the Houston Dash.

“It is always difficult for an expansion team in any league to make a big impact in their first year; however, we believe we have a very good group of players and our goal will be to make the playoffs,” Orlando City Soccer Club CEO Phil Rawlins says.

The Orlando Pride announced on April 5 its plan to set the national women’s league attendance record for their April 23 season home opener at the Orlando Citrus Bowl when it hosts the Houston Dash. The current attendance record is 21,144 fans. The organization is promoting the campaign through social media using the hashtag“#FilledWithPride,” similar to how the men’s team used “#FillTheBowl”.

“I think the women’s team will have a huge impact on our community, albeit in a slightly different way to the men’s team,” Rawlins says.“The Pride probably won’t draw as large crowds as the men do, but from the interest we have seen so far, we believe they will draw significant crowds. The women’s additional contribution will be in their engagement within our community. The Pride players are committed to being closely involved with our community and foundation programs and will be great role models for young female athletes to look up to.”

Since the announcement in October 2015, the hype that has surrounded the NWSL’s newest expansion team has only grown, and it doesn’t seem like its dying anytime soon as Orlando Pride aims to win fan’s hearts and dollars.

“I’ve lived in Orlando for almost 11 years now, and Orlando kind of struggles to have an identity outside of the tourism industry as a tourism attraction,” Stile says. “Soccer in Orlando has really helped galvanize the community, and it’s given everyone something to cheer for.”

“I love the name that plays off the pride of lions,” Mayor Dyer says.“Also, a sense of pride in your city, and then, of course, gay pride.”

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