ORLANDO — Julie didn't seem to mind that she was standing in the middle of the road, wiping away tears while hundreds of people marched past her, singing and chanting in a massive cloud of purple smoke. To her, they weren't strangers.
"They're family," she said. "We've been through so much. This team has helped bring the city together."
With the tragedy of the Pulse Nightclub shooting permanently burned into their daily lives, Orlando residents have been longing for something to cheer about.
"We've been waiting for this day to celebrate," said Julie, who declined to give her last name. "We needed this."
At that, she turned and pointed to where the crowd was headed. Joined in a chorus of song, flags waving, hundreds deep, outside the gates of the city's sparkling new soccer shrine.
Orlando City's season opener on this gorgeous Sunday in early March is also the unveiling of team's new home. After several years playing in the Citrus Bowl, the team moved downtown, just a couple blocks from the Amway Center, where the NBA's Magic plays.
"The fact that it's so close to downtown makes it feel more a part of the city," Julie said.
Constructed specifically for soccer and privately financed, Orlando City Stadium looks like it was plucked out of West London and dropped here. With the low, slanted roof line covering most of the seats and adding to the festive atmosphere, you'd half expect Arsenal or Everton to come charging out of the tunnel. And with a capacity just over 25,000, it's Major League Soccer's largest soccer-specific arena.
It also features the league's only safe-standing supporters section — a standing-room-only area at the north end of the stadium that can hold up to 6,000 of the team's most passionate fans.
When asked if she'll be standing and chanting for the match, Julie smiled. Dressed in peppy shades of purple and gold, including Orlando City's stylish home jersey, she admitted she doesn't know the first thing about soccer.
"Nope. Nothing," she said. "But I'm excited to learn. I plan to be at every game."
Julie isn't the only one. The team's 18,000 season tickets per game sold out in September. That type of fan loyalty was a driving force behind the team leaving USL PRO and being awarded an expansion spot with MLS in 2013.
"The team and its ownership have shown a deep commitment to this city," MLS commissioner Don Garber said before the home opener. "Everything management has done has been smart from the beginning. The branding, the marketing and the connection to the fans."
A glimpse of that connection is visible in Section 12, where 49 rainbow-colored seats honor the 49 victims from the Pulse shooting.
As for the game, the fans got what they came for. A hard-fought match — the calling card of Orlando coach Jason Kreis' teams — and a 1-0 victory. The goal came four minutes after the team's star, Kaka, was replaced because of an injury. Keeping with the theme of the day, something special came from it, as Kaka's replacement, Giles Barnes, sent a curling cross in front of the NYCFC goal where it was deftly headed home by the team's young striker, Cyle Larin.
To say the stadium erupted is a bit of an understatement.
On this day of pride for the Lions, it was nothing short of a deafening roar from the sold-out crowd awash in brilliant Orlando City purple. Just what this family needed.