This column is an appeal to the players and coaches of Orlando City Soccer Club.

Beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Beat them like they’ve never been beaten before.

Beat them like the late, great John Bonham of Led Zeppelin used to beat his drums.

Mop the pitch with them.

Stomp a mudhole in them.

Make them read the “Adidas” on the bottom of your boots.

Not just for yourselves and your supporters, but for your city.

When the Orlando City Lions take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday night at Exploria Stadium in a single-elimination, knockout match in the U.S. Open Cup, it’s not just another soccer game; it’s a matter of civic pride and passion. You see, soccer is the one major league sport in which we can say to those sports snobs over in Tampa, “We’re bigger and better than you!”

It’s no secret that us Orlandoans are envious of Tampa sports. After all, they have Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl two seasons ago and are one of the favorites to win it again this season.

They have the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have won back-to-back Stanley Cups and are trying to become the first NHL team since the early 1980s to accomplish a 3-peat.

They have the Tampa Bay Rays, who, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball, were in the World Series two seasons ago and have been to the playoffs the last three seasons.

They rightfully call themselves “Champa Bay.”

They look at us as “Poor-Lando.”

Yes, we have an NBA team and they don’t, but let’s be honest: They would laugh at us if we bragged to them about the Magic, who’ve been the worst team in the league over the last decade.

Thank goodness for UCF’s football program, which has lorded over USF in recent years, but we’re not talking college sports today. We’re talking professional sports, and quite frankly, the only source of pro sports superiority is soccer, where we have a playoff-caliber MLS franchise and all they have is the minor league Rowdies.

Tampa Bay actually had its chance at MLS years ago but failed miserably. The defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny were an MLS franchise from 1996-2001 and, even though they were good enough to make the playoffs three times, they were a flop at the box office.

Attendance was awful in the cavernous NFL stadium they played in; their stadium lease agreement at Raymond James Stadium was even worse; and they never were able to secure local ownership. MLS, which owned and operated the Mutiny, finally folded up the unprofitable franchise.

Tampa Bay has been a minor league soccer town ever since. Although the original Rowdies have a long, rich history in Tampa Bay dating to the heyday of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s, those days have gone the way of cassette tapes, phone booths and cigarettes on airplanes.

Of course, Orlando City used to be in the minors, too, which is where the intense rivalry with the Rowdies was born. The two clubs dubbed their clashes “The I-4 Derby” back when both were trying to make a name for themselves. Even though Orlando City has moved up to the big leagues, longtime Orlando City fans and former players are adamant that Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match is a must-win for the Lions, who have never lost to the Rowdies (7-0-2).

“When the draw was made for this game, our fans wanted to play the Rowdies and were vocal about it,” says Miguel Gallardo, who played goal-keeper for Orlando City during those minor-league grudge matches with the Rowdies and is now a member of the club’s television broadcast team. “This match means a lot to the fans, and if it means a lot to the fans, it means a lot to the players.

“When I played for Orlando City, we hated the Rowdies, and it was real,” Gallardo added. “Obviously, we were professionals off the field, but on the field, we wanted to get the best of them every time we played. Back in those days, there were no MLS teams in the state, and Orlando City and the Rowdies were the highest-ranked professional soccer teams in Florida. It was our mission back then to turn Florida purple. We wanted to make sure that everybody knew that the best team in Florida was Orlando City.”

That mission is even more imperative today.

We are tired of being Champa Bay’s snot-nosed little brother.

They may look down upon us and derisively call us “Poor-Lando” in every other pro sport, but in soccer they need look up at us and respectfully refer to our team and our town as “Soar-Lando.”

Email me at [email protected]. Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and HD 101.1-2


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