The different tiers and leagues of soccer can be confusing to the average eye...
Major League Soccer, the United Soccer League, the U.S. Open Cup, the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf) and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup — among others — are all playing matches and tournaments in any given year.
But there is no confusion about one thing: Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, along with the City of Orlando, are welcoming destinations for all levels of play. The weather is great, we have plenty of hotel space and numerous world-class facilities, and our ability to collaborate can mitigate any logistical challenge, including an international pandemic.
Our footprint starts in the heart of the city — downtown Orlando — and stretches from there.
In just 60 days from late December to late February, Central Florida hosted the final seven matches of the Concacaf Champions League tournament in Orlando, the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) 280-team youth showcase in Seminole County, spring training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), two friendly matches for the USWNT vs. Colombia, the season opening match for the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) vs. Trinidad & Tobago, and the entire SheBelieves Cup tournament featuring the women’s national teams from Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the U.S.
Not to mention that while all of this was happening, we continued to pursue events like this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup tournament, a friendly match with the Mexican National Team as part of its annual MexTour, and, of course, our conversations with FIFA to bring the World Cup to Orlando in 2026.
It’s a lot on our plate, but the Greater Orlando Sports Commission — and our community — are up to the task.
“We take great pride in continuously hosting such large, renowned soccer events at Exploria Stadium,” said Orlando City Soccer Club CEO Alex Leitão. “Since we opened our doors in 2017, our venue and the City of Orlando have proved that we are the soccer capital of the U.S.”
As we continue to have an increasing volume of conversations with Leitão and so many other domestic and international stakeholders, it’s obvious that our community can handle just about anything.
“It truly is a testament to the commitment of our club, our partners and our community to continue finding innovative and, most importantly, safe ways to bring the sport of soccer to our city and fans around the world,” Leitão said. “I could not be prouder of all that we have accomplished and will continue to accomplish moving forward.”
Behind the scenes, it’s crucial that we work with multiple partners in the convention and visitors bureau space, venue management teams, airports and hoteliers to ensure our guests have the most positive experience while preparing to compete at the highest level. In these current times, we have to make sure our health care providers and partners are not only working to support the visiting athletic trainers and staffs of our guests, but also to help them navigate through the current pandemic and provide a safe environment for them to work, train and play.
“Orlando has been an excellent destination to hold U.S. Soccer’s camps and games in a highly controlled environment that allows us to execute our medical protocols and enable all of our players and staff members to do what they do best, which is to train and prepare to win games,” said Dr. George Chiampas, U.S. Soccer’s chief medical officer. “The space we have at our team hotel, the quality of training fields, and the cooperation of hotel staffs, local health authorities and the staffs with the Orlando Pride and Orlando City at Exploria Stadium have all combined to help us do something that is very difficult in sports nowadays, which is trying to keep some sense of normalcy during the pandemic.”
And our local venues are proud to play the role of host. “We are honored and humbled that both the U.S. Men’s National Team and U.S. Women’s National Team continue to select Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate as a destination,” said Robert Stanfield, area managing director for Omni Hotels & Resorts. “We are fortunate to have a one-of-a-kind private footprint offering a ‘bubble-like’ setting that is ideal for sports teams. Having the playing fields on property within close proximity to the accommodations is a big advantage.”
Our region’s collective efforts help ensure positive outcomes for events while continuing to build our reputation as a tremendous host community, all of which helps us attract future business. And successful events translate into positive outcomes when we look at opportunities that drive sports tourism:
- Hosting marquee events drives economic impact through visitation, which generates hotel stays and spending in our community.
- Event marketing of our destinations includes broadcasts into millions of homes, not to mention the opportunity for local sports fans to attend in person.
- Amateur and youth sports space can cut down on the drive time and travel time for our local families whose children participate in these events.
But Orlando is more than just an event destination for U.S. Soccer and so many other event rights-holders. They come back to Orlando because of the way this community supports their events and the way Orlando has embraced the beautiful game. Soccer is a sport for all — and if you think about it, there are many parallels between the sport and our city.
Soccer is global — the most popular sport in the world. Orlando is a melting pot, with 1,500 people a week moving to our region. People from all over the country and the world are putting down roots and joining our community, and they are bringing their love of the game with them.
Soccer is an inclusive sport by nature, and the sport has become a vehicle to grow inclusion throughout the world through programs such as Soccer Without Borders and Major League Soccer’s “Soccer For All.” And the City of Orlando is known for its dedication to inclusiveness, posting this on its website: “Orlando is known worldwide for being a welcoming and inclusive city for everybody, regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and gender identity. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has preserved an inclusive government that fosters diversity by establishing local programs, ordinances and laws that benefit the LGBTQ+ community.”
Soccer is affordable and accessible. All you need is a ball and space, making it accessible to nearly everyone and one of the most inexpensive sports to play. Orlando is the definition of accessible, even for those visiting from far away, with 175-plus direct flights available worldwide through Orlando International Airport alone. And while you can certainly spend plenty of money in Orlando if you want to, it’s easy to have a fantastic stay here without breaking the bank — there are 200,000-plus hotel rooms, timeshare units and vacation rentals in the region, many of them affordable.
Orlando is more than just a destination. And our partners certainly understand that. Our “bragging rights” are etched in the rave reviews from those who could not be more pleased with these collaborative efforts.
“We’re thrilled to begin what will be a significant year for the national team by playing our opening match in Orlando,” said Gregg Berhalter, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach. “The city has always been a great host, and the facilities are outstanding for our needs. Orlando has established itself as a great destination for U.S. Soccer.”
Then there’s this from Ricardo Villar, CEO of Florida Cup: “The destination offers all of the key components an organizer seeks in order to run a successful international soccer event. We have great weather and infrastructure for multiple clubs to conduct high-performance training camps, as well as multiple-size venues to compete in. There is also plenty of entertainment off the field for the fans to enjoy. It is a perfect combination of technical excellence and commercial opportunities generating impactful content.”
Philippe Moggio, Concacaf general secretary, had this to say: “We are very grateful to Orlando City SC, the Greater Orlando Sports Commission and the mayor’s office for supporting Concacaf to deliver the final matches of our 2020 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League. The facilities at Exploria Stadium are first class and all the city’s stakeholders have assisted us in organizing this competition safely, and in a manner that has allowed the teams to showcase
some great football to fans across the region. We have seen what a great city this is, and on behalf of everyone at Concacaf and the participating clubs, thank you, Orlando.”
No, thank YOU. And everyone else, for making the soccer magic happen in Central Florida.
JASON SIEGEL is president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. Longtime Orlando sportswriter George Diaz contributed to this article.