On the Pitch: Orlando City SC Continues Relationship With USWNT, Hosts Toronto FC in Unique MLS Season
SheBelieves Cup served as a preseason warmup
The past 10 months have been a whirlwind for Major League Soccer. After last summer’s MLS Is Back Tournament in the Orlando bubble and the eventual return to empty home stadiums, the attendance of some clubs in the league are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Much like At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, On the Hardwood, and At the Rink, SVG’s On the Pitch takes you into the control room with in-venue crews to understand what their job is like before, during, and after the official’s whistle is blown.
After a year filled with international friendlies, the MLS Is Back Tournament, and regular-season play of two professional clubs, Orlando may rightfully be called the capital of U.S. soccer. At Exploria Stadium, core of operations is Orlando City SC’s in-venue team, which, after one of the most peculiar seasons in recent memory, is using the venue’s full calendar of events to get back on track and entertain supporters the way it has done in previous seasons.
“There has been a good amount of work to do, but we’ve been able to transition back into the regular season,” says Geena Catalano, manager, events and fan engagement, Orlando City SC. “It has been really good for all of us to get back into the swing of things.”
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Preseason Prep: Team Gets Extra Work During SheBelieves Cup
With warm weather all year round, four-year-old Exploria Stadium is a prime location for high-profile soccer matches. Both the U.S. women’s and men’s national teams have used this pitch as a de facto home base for FIFA World Cup qualification, continental tournaments in the CONCACAF, and other international competitions. With the pandemic still at its height in March 2021, the SheBelieves Cup — an annual tournament usually hosted in multiple cities across the nation — was sequestered in Orlando to eliminate unnecessary travel.
In the period Feb. 18-24, four of the best women’s teams in the world — U.S., Brazil, Canada, and Argentina — showcased their talents in front of a limited crowd. Six total games were played over the week, with a doubleheader on each match day. As usual, these games served as a good test run for the upcoming MLS and NWSL seasons.
“Working with U.S. Soccer was a great experience,” says Catalano. “It’s a huge honor that they picked our stadium. We haven’t [hosted fans] in a while, so it was nice to open up the stadium to them and gauge how they would react to being back.”
During these special neutral-site events, Catalano and her team are able to learn valuable lessons in collaboration. Coming down from U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago, the league’s creative team works closely with the Orlando City SC team to develop engaging content for fans in the stands. With a scaled-down show, this new run of show was a primer for what was to come at the start of the season.
“With the pandemic,” she notes, “it has been a little dialed-down, but we’re slowly starting to bring things back. As protocols continue to get lifted, we’re going to see more flexibility with what we come up with.”
Canadian Visitors: Exploria Stadium Is Toronto FC’s Temporary Home
Orlando City SC and the NWSL’s Orlando Pride occupy the minds of Florida sports fans, but, this season, the Sunshine State is hosting a club that is far from home. Like its MLB and NBA counterparts, Toronto FC is playing south of the border, away from BMO Field. Other Canadian teams in the league are doing the same thing, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps in Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium. In Salt Lake City, the RSL production team is handling execution of Vancouver’s show, but, in Orlando, the team is working with a representative of Toronto FC at Exploria Stadium. Catalano works alongside Toronto FC Specialist, Match Development and Events, Kadeem Bandali, whose team is creating content in Toronto.
“The team in Toronto is handling the creative elements,” Catalano notes, “and he works with us to make sure that all of the videoboard content is designed correctly. We’re also responsible for uploading everything into our system and timing it out with their script.”
Managing a show in a different country is a tough task with many last-minute changes and adjustments. To streamline operations for Bandali and his colleagues, Catalano is assisting with any obstacles that come up.
“We’re managing all of the production staff and cameras just as we would for Orlando City,” she says. “I’m here to help Kadeem however I can while he focuses on the show.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Shoutout to Orlando City SC’s Production Team
Every year, Catalano and company juggle a ton of responsibilities, and their jobs are going to get a lot busier this month. After a year with limited fans in the stands, Exploria Stadium will welcome back a full house for the Pride’s match vs. NJ/NY Gotham FC next week. To remain organized, the club is grounded by its leadership. Thanks to the work of Orlando City SC VP, Marketing, Kevin Coulthart, the team moves forward with a clear vision and plan. Overall, the crew’s passion for the game and love for the work is what gets them through the hectic schedule.
“Our production team is extremely dedicated, and I really couldn’t do my job without them,” says Catalano. “We’re all huge fans, so we really get into each game and pay attention to detail.”
Despite playing at home, Orlando City SC will be the designated visitor during the match vs. Toronto FC at Exploria Stadium on Saturday, June 19 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The club’s next official home match will be against the San Jose Earthquakes on Tuesday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m.