SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
– Orlando City Soccer Club –
– By Diane Sears –
Alex Leitao remembers the day he knew he’d be a soccer fan for life. Where he grew up, in Rio de Janeiro, family tradition determined which team he was supposed to follow. When he was about 6, his father took him to the Maracanã, Brazil’s largest stadium. The star player, a beloved hometown hero, had returned to the Vasco team after playing for Barcelona in Spain. Vasco won that day 5-0, with that player scoring all five goals. Leitao, perched on his father’s shoulders, could feel the energy pulsing through the crowd.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget,” he said. “That was my first real experience, where the passion started.”
He has followed that passion through years of professional soccer management roles and today serves as CEO of the Orlando City Soccer Club. Leitao keeps a trophy and photo in his office from when he was part of the delegation for the Brazilian national team that beat Germany for the World Cup title in Japan in June 2002. He has been involved in every World Cup competition ever since.
That’s one reason Leitao is adamant about bringing World Cup soccer back to Orlando, a host city in 1994. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, will choose 10 U.S. cities out of 17 vying to host games in 2026 along with three cities each in Mexico and Canada.
He describes the potential economic opportunity for Orlando in one word: massive. “I don’t think people realize it’s the biggest sports event in the world by far,” Leitao said. “It can’t be compared to anything — not the Olympics, not anything. It comes with a huge economic impact, and it gives an important platform for whatever the regions and the cities want to use it for. In those 30 to 40 days, the entire world is looking at one place. … Let’s say we have three games in Orlando, you’re talking about three Super Bowls in Orlando in a period of two weeks. It’s incredible.”
Leitao is also passionate about Orlando, a city he visited at 15 in a traditional Brazilian teenage rite of passage. He loved Orlando so much that he and his wife bought a vacation home here years before his work brought them to Central Florida.
“We used to come here and vacation three times a year without dreaming we’d live here,” he said.
“It’s a place that gives us some peace in our minds, and a place where we’re happy.”
Under Leitao’s leadership, Orlando City has been delivering on promises the club made to its avid fan base: joining the Major League Soccer (MLS) league in 2015, building the soccer-specific Exploria Stadium downtown, opening training facilities in Seminole and Osceola counties, and taking its men’s and women’s teams to higher levels of play. Several members of the women’s team, the Orlando Pride, are Olympic gold medalists and played on the U.S. team that won the women’s World Cup in 2019.
This year, the men’s team hosted the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. Held in the summer when venues were shut down because of the pandemic, it became the first major league sports event to use the “bubble” concept. The 26-league MLS isolated its players, coaches and staff at Walt Disney World, where they played in a bracket system until the final two teams faced off in a showdown: Orlando City and the eventual victor, the Portland Timbers.
Leitao recalls an MLS executive suggesting the league look at minimizing travel by determining a way teams could play in two or three bubbles depending on their location.
“I started thinking, hey, there is a place that can accommodate that. It’s not everywhere you find 17 soccer fields in the same location. We have that at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports.”
He connected his sources at Disney and the MLS, and the solution emerged. “That was so important for us to keep ourselves in business and to give relief to fans to watch sports on television. We learned about protocols we put in place to finish the season outside the bubble. We learned inside the bubble.”
“The reason we have an MLS team here in Orlando is because of the fans. They pushed and they proved year after year that they love this game and are passionate about it.”
— Alex Leitao
Photography by Orlando City Soccer Club
As seen in November/December 2020 i4 Business Magazine