The one-year anniversary mark of the killing of 49 people in the Pulse gay disco massacre on June 12, 2016 coincided with the return of the team to home action. During the week of remembrance, Orlando was the focus of national media, and the team was again the expression of social solidarity for the town.
The Lions drew with Chicago on June 4, 2017, then came the 3-1 U.S. Open Cup loss to Miami FC, where coach Jason Kreis fielded a team with various substitutes as they crashed out of the competition.
Orlando City's last home match in this mournful month for the city was a contest Saturday against Montreal (3-3), before undertaking a three-match road trip before a return home on July 5. OCSC is in fourth place with 25 points, seven points behind leader Toronto FC.
In some summer days, after the afternoon rains and around the 7:30 start time of matches, sometimes the sky seems to cooperate, with a mauve, grayish tint that mirrors the club colors, the stadium walls, and perhaps the mood of the town.
OCSC plays in a new facility for 25,000 fans modeled on Dortmund's Westfalen Stadion. The new Orlando City Stadium is home to the Lions and the Orlando Pride (women). At the start of Church Street, two blocks north, is the Amway center, where the NBA's Orlando Magic plays. At the other end, (six blocks south), is the Citrus Bowl/Camping World Stadium, where OCSC played its first two years of existence.
In the middle of this stadium sandwich on Church street is the new Orlando City Stadium. But Church Street is now lined with banners brand the town with the faces of the club's male and female players such as Kaka, Antonio Nocerino, Alex Morgan (Pride) Joe Bendik, Cyle Larin.
In 2016, the Lions hosted the San Jose Earthquakes mere days after the June 12 massacre, and it held honorary ceremonies for the first responders and victims of the tragedy. Thereafter, the club wore #OrlandoUnited patches as signs of solidarity with the city. In addition, Orlando City raised $500,000 to the OneOrlando fund after the Pulse massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.
"That first home game, I think it was important in the healing process [of the city]," said Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer. "To know that we could go on with our lives."
The NBA was in the offseason, so OCSC was alone in the arena, and the Lions' matches became a communal catharsis. The club received the ENSPIRE Stuart Scott prize from ESPN, along with a $100,000 donation for organizations chosen by the club for humanitarian purposes.
"They were very much in a position of opportunity...and they handled it with great sensitivity and empathy. Part was due to the fact they had a game so soon after [the tragedy]," explains Simon Veness, an English journalist who covers the club. "On the anniversary, they're still seen as spokespeople for the community and a conduit for grief and recovery."
That continues in 2017. Brazilian star Kaka wore a rainbow-themed captain's armband for the first time versus Miami, and other MLS teams will be wearing it during "Pride Week."
Traditionally, behind the goal stand the "Ruckus" and "Iron Lion Firm," two organized fan groups, adapt Spanish-language chants into their repertoire and several gay-friendly rainbow banners wave. It is a strikingly diverse collection of supporters: Europeans, Brazilians, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans; retirees and millenials stand and chant in unison. "The [team's] message has been so inclusive. "They have a lot of Latins, and the two [supporters groups] have been linked. The Pride has a strong gay following," says Veness.
As the city mourns in June, Orlando Lions hope to celebrate on the field.