Orlando is just magic for ex-Hearts keeper Mark Ridgers

Temperatures at Sylvan Lake Park are beyond 30 degrees. Mark Ridgers is sitting in blazing sunshine chatting on his phone after a morning training session with Orlando City.

Wednesday, 25th May 2016, 5:30 am
Kaka is Orlando City's big-name player

He returns to Scotland to get married this week, then flies back to Florida to host a reunion of Hearts goalkeepers past and present. Life has changed beyond all recognition.

Ridgers is outside a training ground he shares with Brazilian superstar Kaká. He describes mixing with the former World Footballer of the Year every day as “just a normal thing”. Merely a few months ago, his most recognisable team-mate was St Mirren’s Jim Goodwin. Ridgers joined the Orlando City B team in January this year and is loving the latest chapter in his goalkeeping career. At 25, he is now targeting a place in the MLS after making his name in Scotland with Ross County, Hearts, St Mirren and Kilmarnock.

Orlando City B play in the Eastern Conference of the United Soccer League, the third tier of football in America. They serve as both a feeder and reserve side for Kaká’s Orlando City SC. The club’s shared training base at Sylvan Lake Park in Seminole County, north of Orlando, is one of Florida’s most tranquil and idyllic parts. Disneyland is just a few miles away, but this is no Mickey Mouse set-up.

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Mark Ridgers plays for the Orlando City B team

Ridgers joined Orlando in January on a one-year contract with a further year’s option. He viewed the move as a potential springboard to the MLS. Another sensible choice will be affirmed this week when he marries fiancé Emma. He then welcomes goalkeeping mates Jamie MacDonald and Craig Gordon Stateside next month. Jack Hamilton was to join them but a surprise call-up to the Scotland squad will likely prevent him crossing the Atlantic.

The lifestyle is the very antithesis of Ridgers’ upbringing in Inverness, and he is very much making the most of it. “People were sending me photos on Snapchat from back home the other day,” he laughs. “They were outside with a beer because it was 21 degrees. I wake up and it’s that temperature here. It’s crazy. A year ago I’d no idea what was going on and I was in limbo. The St Mirren thing was difficult because I wasn’t playing and I’d no idea what was happening. Football – or soccer as I need to call it over here – takes you to these places.

“Julio Baptista has trained with us, Kaká too when he was getting back fit, Christian Higuita as well. Bryan Rochez, the striker, is going to be playing with us all season. He’s an MLS player earning hundreds of thousands a year. Players can drop down from Orlando City’s MLS squad into ours to get game time. Our team is seen as a development team for the MLS squad.

“You see Kaká every day, you speak to him at breakfast and then you see him out training. The first day I arrived here, I did my medical at a big hospital in Orlando. Then we arrived at the training ground and Kaká was just coming out. He was on his phone. That’s when you take a deep breath and think to yourself: ‘This is the guy I went to Celtic Park to watch when he was World Footballer of the Year.’ Now I see him every day and it’s just a normal thing.

Mark Ridgers plays for the Orlando City B team

“I’m sitting outside just now and it’s 31 degrees. It’s a similar situation to when I was a young boy at Hearts where the youth team are always around the first team. We get changed in the same facility as the MLS squad, we train on the same pitches, so everyone is around each other. Most of our squad have come from college football and this is their first experience of professional football. I’m one of the more experienced players. Again, it’s like when Hearts were in administration and there was Ryan Stevenson, Jamie Hamill, Jamie MacDonald, and then me.

“Sometimes we’ll train at 9am in the morning because, if you wait till 11 or 12, it’s 35 degrees. And this isn’t their summer yet. You’re training in the heat, afterwards you’re chilling outside – I’ll be lying by the pool at my apartment. Jamie MacDonald is coming out with his wife and kid on June 1 and Jack Hamilton was supposed to be coming as well. Craig Gordon texted me the other day and said he’s coming too.

“It’s strange to say that I live here now and these guys are coming for holidays. My life has completely changed and I still pinch myself. You can go on a night out here without having to worry about people’s reaction. The fans aren’t like they are back home, neither is the media. If you lose a game, it’s not a big deal. The fans are still clapping you off the pitch.

“If the game is at seven o’clock at night, people are here from three in the afternoon having barbecues and kicking the ball around. They make a day of it. Players walk out to fireworks and sing the national anthem before every game. Our games are down on the coast in Melbourne, just over an hour from Orlando. Before every game, you sing the national anthem and there’s photos and everything. I’m really enjoying it.

“My contract is for one year with the option of another year. My aim is to get into the MLS, either with Orlando or maybe somewhere else. I’ll explore any options available. If I have the chance to stay here, in the sun, then for an extra year it would be worth it. Everyone here is just so laid back. Training is good, but as soon as it’s done everyone is talking about going to the beach or having barbecues.”

Perhaps most importantly, Orlando have given Ridgers an escape from a nightmare scenario in Paisley. He joined St Mirren two years ago after being released by Hearts, believing he would be first-choice goalkeeper under then-manager Ian Murray. He ended up on loan at Kilmarnock sitting as reserve to MacDonald. Something had to change.

“When Alex Rae came in at St Mirren [in December last year], I decided I was going to prove to him I could play,” says Ridgers. “I was at Kilmarnock and we were in Inverness preparing to play Ross County when my agent phoned. I couldn’t play for another team in the UK because of the rule restricting you to two clubs in a season. I wasn’t going to play at Kilmarnock because Jamie MacDonald was in top form. At St Mirren, I fell out with Ian Murray because he was lying to me, saying I was going to play. Jamie Langfield came in and I never played.

“My agent said Orlando City had set up a B squad. When you hear Orlando City, you want to know more. I’m getting married this week so I had to make sure I could get back home for my wedding date. Me and my fiancé had to decide if it would be right to move out here. The Orlando manager called me and explained the set up of the club. Once everything was sorted out, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.”

Despite being ensconced on the other side of the pond, Ridgers has discovered the footballing community is closer than he imagined. “My goalkeeping coach knows Paulo Sergio. They used to play together in Portugal and still keep in touch. When I signed here, Paulo sent me a message. Stewart Kerr is the MLS squad’s goalkeeping coach. Adrian Heath is the head coach of the MLS squad, the club’s co-owner is English, our manager is Anthony Pulis, Tony Pulis’ son.

“The league is developing and the standard of player is improving. It’s definitely on the up. That’s something I’ve looked at because I want to get myself playing in the MLS. You’re live on Sky Sports, there’s talk of people like Ibrahimovic coming out here, so the attention on that league is going to be massive.”