Kaka gives Orlando soccer moment to remember and it probably won't be his last
ORLANDO, Fla. – They brought in a legend, and he did something legendary.
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Kaka scored a goal on Sunday that didn't cause any tremors in the international soccer world, but it did endear him to this Florida city instantly and permanently. In the 91st minute of the first-ever Orlando City SC game here at the Citrus Bowl, the former Ballon d'Or winner from Brazil scored the tying goal off a free kick that will be replayed here for as long soccer is played here.
"I've scored many special goals," Kaka said with a broad smile after the 1-1 draw against New York City FC in the Major League Soccer expansion teams' first game. "This goal will always have a special place for me."
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It sure helped Orlando start its journey toward being a special place in the soccer world. Sunday was pristine in its weather and its spirit – an awakening of an oft-overlooked sports city that left one Orlando City player emotional on the field.
Prior MLS franchises have failed in this state, and the history of pro sports in this city is short and uninspiring. The Magic have gone to the NBA Finals twice, once with Shaquille O'Neal in 1995 and once with Dwight Howard in 2009, but those peaks came amid long valleys of losing. This is Gator country, Seminoles country, perhaps Knights country to some extent. It's not a pro sports mecca. Not even close.
So the groundswell of support for this new team has been anywhere from impressive to shocking. Orlando City SC bumper stickers are everywhere in a town where the most popular franchise to support on your car is Four Rivers BBQ. Lions sweaters dotted the whole town on Sunday, all of them new and many of them emblazoned with the four letters of the Brazilian import's name.
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Fans drove, took buses, even rode the SunRail train that hasn't been wildly popular in its infancy. Some walked across town, past Lake Eola and Amway Center, decked in their purple scarves and sunglasses. Some set up goals next to their tailgate tents and kicked the ball around. The renovated Citrus Bowl was filled with 62,510 people, which is more than the average 2014 attendance of eight NFL teams.
"It was an unbelievable experience," said OCSC midfielder Lewis Neal, who has played the world over but never in front of so many people. "I've never seen anything like that before. It was something I'll never forget."
Neal played here as a member of the USL Pro team, and then left for D.C. United after the 2011 season. He said that earlier edition of the Orlando team was happy with 11,000 people. Now this.
"I must admit I was a little emotional," he said.
Can it last? That's the ultimate question. Soccer in America is great for the shared spectacle, but not as much for the every day hum of discussion and debate. Sure, there are the fans and families who bought season tickets and will follow along closely, but it's hardly likely that 62,000 people will show up to the next home game. It's not even known yet if the new 20,000-seat stadium will be packed for every match. Soccer was an event on Sunday, but it's not an event every weekend. Not here, not yet.
And still there was a current of something different in the shadow of the 408 freeway. There were no empty sections, and fans stood along the catwalks to watch. They stayed late after the game, waiting along barricades for Kaka to emerge, hoping just to see him.
"Today was amazing," said a body-painted fan named Gabriel Larrazapal. "I prayed for that goal, and it happened."
Sunday was also a little bit of vindication – a little bit of credibility. "It shows we're soccer fans," said Noemy Diaz-Burgos, 16. "It puts us on the map."
Remember that the biggest professional stars ever to play here have left for higher ground. First O'Neal, then Howard. Even Tiger Woods moved to Jupiter. Orlando is a place where people visit, not stay. Most folks land at the airport and jump on the Magical Express bus to Disney World, never caring to know about the brick-lined streets downtown where hipsters congregate and bars bubble over with Millennials and the pancakes don't have mouse ears.
That hidden Orlando loves its new team. It loves the new part of its identity. It loves the Brazilian footballer, especially after Sunday.
"People ask me, 'Why is it such a big deal?' " said Serena Wedlake, an event planner who has lived here for four years. "I tell them, 'You don't even know.' "
More people now know.
It was only a point in the standings, only a tie. Yet the way it happened, with the borrowed star breaking through the wall of defenders from the big city in the last minute – it was tinged with meaning.
"Everything that happened tonight was incredible," Kaka said, "for everybody."
In a transient town known for the coming and going of tourists, this moment is something Orlando can keep.