Few souls looked at the barren piece of land and imagined a soccer cathedral. There were two major stadiums already situated within a few blocks. There were more pressing priorities and more tempting dreams at hand for a neighborhood with its sights set on rejuvenation within its own distinct character. There were few links to the game expected to take hold there.
Slowly but surely, the idea found solid footing. Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer risked $8.2 million to acquire the land and rode through the inevitable furor. The continued success of Orlando City in the USL and the prospect of an MLS expansion team in the city generated the excitement required to sway public sentiment.
This process required patience and time as the team ascended into its new league and the stadium emerged pillar by pillar. Soccer found its place in the city as Orlando City thrived. It is now the sort of locale capable of hosting a crunch FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Panama, presented by Volpi Foods, on Friday night (7:30p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision, UDN) and supplying the sort of atmosphere designed to push the U.S. Men’s National Team toward those precious three points.
It’s an occasion made even more special by the presence of two native sons on Bruce Arena’s roster. Dax McCarty (Winter Park) and Graham Zusi (Longwood) emerged from this area to reach these lofty heights. Their progression provides another glimpse at how this city and how this region embraced the game and watched those benefits manifest in recent years.
“I’m really excited,” McCarty said. “I have a lot of friends and family here. I grew up about 10 minutes from where the Orlando City Stadium is. For me, it’s great to see how far soccer has come in this community with the success that Orlando City has had with their fans. It’s been amazing to see.”
This foundation starts with a tale from the grassroots. Like many parents in the Orlando area, Dart McCarty picked up soccer alongside his children. Dax and his brother Dustin played. He coached them from an early age and learned the finer points of the game along the way.
“[Dax] got started when he was 4,” Dart McCarty explains now. “As a matter of fact, I got started around the same time. Where I was born and raised and what I had been doing -- flying airplanes -- had nothing to do with soccer. We sort of learned together. He started playing and I got really, really involved in soccer.”
One thing led to another. Dax and Dustin improved together before their modest age separation forced them onto different teams. Dart tried to step away once his boys reached a certain age and turned straight into the heart of a youth club instead. They were hooked and the path for the future pair of Tar Heels soon emerged.
It led straight to the door of Winter Park coach Ray Sandidge. The two McCarty brothers both played at Winter Park, but Dax arrived first. He showed his potential when he signed up as a ball boy in seventh grade and snuck his way onto the bench before the end of his first game. His development and his penchant for processing and implementing instructions quickly sparked Sandidge’s interest before he even reached high school. He labels him now as the smartest player he’s ever coached.
“He’s not flashy,” said Sandidge, a fixture of the Orlando club, college and high school soccer scene. “He just does everything right. People who watched him play once said, well, what’s the big deal about this guy? He’s just a kid. But if he was on your team and you watched him play two or three times, you said, ‘Wow, he can really play.’ He just does all of the simple things right.”
It took one game for the slight McCarty -- 5’3”, 95 lbs. precisely, Sandidge recalls -- to push his way from relative safety on the right side of the midfield into the central position he still occupies now. His size and his speed didn’t matter against faster and stronger opponents. His ability to anticipate the play, move the ball quickly and position himself adroitly distinguished himself then as much as it does now.
Those traits propelled McCarty to heights few, if any, players from Central Florida reached in those days. He accepted the challenge presented in high school, fought his way onto the U.S. Youth National Team radar and then worked his way into the picture for a place in the U-17 Residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
After Dart McCarty received the call from former U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team coach John Ellinger, he walked Dax down to a nearby lake to tell him the news. He shared the inevitable reservations he and his wife, Cynthia, harbored about the prospect of parting ways with their teenage son and told Dax about the possibilities ahead in Bradenton. Dax answered by pointing out how he used to plot his way toward the future and used a family tradition -- writing down goals every year and storing them away for safekeeping -- to seal the deal.
“He said, ‘Well, from day one, for the past four or five years, I filled out these goal sheets and then I always said, Dad, that I wanted to go to Bradenton and play for the Youth National Team,’” Dart McCarty recalled. “‘And now that it’s here, you’re saying that you’re a little apprehensive. So, do you want me to achieve my goals?’ I said, ‘Well, go and have a good life. I think you’re going to do well.’ He basically got me because of what I had been doing. It was pretty smart.”
McCarty’s ascent to Bradenton and North Carolina and Zusi’s progression to the University of Maryland marked the emergence of Orlando as a notable producer of talent.
The continued success of the duo in MLS and their sustained presence in the U.S. Men’s National Team setup punctuated the evolution of a region trying to carve out its own place in the crowded development pipeline.
“It’s been great for our area,” Sandidge said. “And I’m just talking about a little area here. These guys grew up within 10 miles of each other. We had -- in the mid-2000s -- Dax was drafted, Lyle Adams was drafted by D.C. [United], Dax’s younger brother, Dustin, who also played for me, was drafted [and won the MLS Cup with LA Galaxy in 2011]. And Graham. Right there, boom, boom, boom. And I’m just talking about our little area here. We weren’t that big metropolitan soccer location then. We were just a little town.”
Orlando is now a little town with a couple of big, hometown stars to guide the way. There are no hypotheticals any more about local players fighting their way into the pros. There is a pair of clear, practical examples to cite. It is a role the two U.S. Men’s National Team figures embrace.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Sandidge said. “He’s been super gracious. He’s come back. I still coach and he talks with the kids. Graham, too. They’ll meet them and talk with them. It’s a great learning thing.”
Every lesson helps for this burgeoning destination. Orlando does not boast the history of St. Louis or the sheer numbers of southern California or the specific traits of any number of cities or regions usually listed here, but the city is now one of the most passionate markets in the country.
Once an afterthought, it is now a shining example of the next wave of cities embracing the sport across the country. It is the type of place where Arena calls The Wall -- the standing section occupying one side of the stadium -- “terrific” as his team opens its build-up to the Panama game and everyone nods in agreement and understanding without the slightest hesitation.
“I have to be honest with you,” Sandidge said. “When they played the first MLS game [in 2015], it was in the Citrus Bowl [now known as Camping World Stadium] and there were 60-some-thousand there. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to be kidding me.’ I have all of the photos. It’s incredible. I could have never imagined the day.”
The opening of Orlando City Stadium earlier this year accelerated the process started by the team over the past few years.
The stadium represents the capstone in this soccer quest. All of the energy and all of the emotional investment manifested in a gleaming, 25,500-seat ground usually packed to the rafters in purple and currently primed to transform into a sea of red, white and blue for this special occasion.
“I’m extremely excited,” Zusi said. “I had the opportunity to play in Orlando in MLS this year. I was blown away by the fan support and the atmosphere. I’m looking forward to a lot more of the same on Friday.”
Zusi’s sentiments illustrate how the vision turned into reality. It is no longer about imagining the future for a few empty acres in downtown. It is about reveling in the moment and the opportunity provided by the transformation instead.