Photo courtesy Mark Thor / Orlando City SC
ORLANDO, Fla. – As he took in the scene on Sunday night at Orlando City SC first game at its new soccer-specific stadium, former goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo stood with a wide smile on his face.
Six years after he had made his first start for Orlando City SC in the USL, the dream the club had when it arrived in the Sunshine State had become a reality.
“Oh, man,” Gallardo replied when asked if he thought this day would happen six years ago. “The believer part of me, yes, but it seemed something that was so far away. To see it come to life is surreal.”
Gallardo and other members of the Lions’ USL-era team were on hand in various capacities as Orlando took a 1-0 victory against New York City FC at Orlando City Stadium. With 25,500 fans packed into the downtown venue, and both ESPN and MLS Commissioner Don Garber on hand, the game allowed for those who had been with the club from its early days to appreciate how far it had come.
“So many times I remember driving down I-4 and looking over near Amway and saying, ‘that stadium will be there. It’ll be there, we’ll be able to see it,’” said former defender Rob Valentino. “To sit up there and actually watch the game, and have that come to reality was something really, really special.”
Gallardo and Valentino were USL award-winners in the Lions’ inaugural season, with Gallardo claiming Goalkeeper of the Year honors and Valentino being named Defender of the Year. Nowadays the names on then field are slightly more widely known than those who led the Lions to victory in the USL Cup in 2011, but Valentino – now an assistant coach for Orlando City B – believes Orlando’s current players have continued, and even expanded, the culture that made the club successful in the USL.
Photo courtesy Orlando City SC
“It’s really cool to see then big-name players take over the legacy and I think guys like Cyle have really bought into what this club’s about,” said Valentino. “Guys like Kaka can take it to a completely different height than myself. No matter how hard Jamie Watson tries, I don’t think he can take it to the height that Kaka can.”
Photo courtesy Orlando City SC
Gallardo, who now works in a variety of roles for the club, including for its local broadcast team and being a community ambassador, believes the sense of family within the club is a reason why the club was able to succeed as well as it did both on and off the field.
“It’s always been a family to me,” said Gallardo. “This is where I met my fiancé, this is where my baby’s going to be born in a couple of months, and so this is home for me, and there’s still a lot of people – even though there’s been a lot of changes – there’s still a lot of people on the team that have been here since I was here, and so for me to be able to get this opportunity to come back and work in a different side of the game, it’s just wonderful.”
As part of the club’s original lineup, Sunday night proved a proud moment for the players and staff who helped lay the foundation for a landmark moment in the Lions’ history.
“I thought about a lot of my teammates today, and a lot of the former staff members,” said Valentino. “I thought about them all day because this is a special moment for this club, and everyone should be proud for the small part that everyone’s played.”