By: Pedro Heizer
When Orlando City Soccer Club president Phil Rawlins relocated the Austin Aztex FC to Orlando back in 2010, his sole purpose was to bring MLS back to the southeast. Something that has been missing since MLS ripped the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Munity out of the MLS Map back in 2001.
“When we announced the franchise move in 2010 we set a very clear goal of bringing Major League Soccer to Central Florida,” said Rawlins. “We reached out to MLS, began a dialog with them, and met with them in many occasions over these three years.”
When MLS announced that by 2020 four expansion teams will be added to the league, most said Orlando City was the first logical team.
“We asked for a roadmap from them [MLS] to see what it would take to become a franchise. They gave us the roadmap, and for the past two and half years, we’ve been diligently working to make it all a reality. The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the finance plan for the downtown stadium.”
Orlando City took a positive step closer to a soccer specific stadium in downtown Orlando when the Orlando City Council unanimously approved a plan that would provide $20 million in tourist taxes for the stadium.
“This is obviously a very big step toward our goal of bringing MLS,” said Rawlins. “I am delighted to have the City behind us.”
The final hurdle facing the club is now to see if the Orange County Commission approves the plan on Tuesday, October 22.
According to the club, MLS President Mark Abbott will be in Orlando on Monday to meet individually with Orange County Commissioners prior to Tuesday’s vote on completion of funding for the new, downtown soccer stadium.
If Orange County approves it, Orlando City fans can begin celebrating. According to Rawlins, upon approval by the Orange County Commissioners, MLS will have an announcement of an expansion franchise in Orlando before Thanksgiving.
Since their inaugural season Orlando City has been impressing not only MLS, but the entire soccer community.
In their first ever match; Orlando City defeated MLS-side Philadelphia Union 1-0 in an exhibition at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Following a season-opening road loss to Richmond Kickers, Orlando City went on an 11-match undefeated run, closing the first half with a record of 8–1–3. The club finished the season 15–3–6 record, winning the 2011 Commissioner’s Cup and the 2011 USL Pro Championship.
In 2012, Orlando City once again won the Commissioner’s Cup after finishing the season with 57 points (17-6-1), however the Lions lost 4-3 to the Wilmington Hammerheads in the USL Pro playoffs.
The Lions continued their third year in USL Pro and took second place in the regular season. Their first game in the playoffs was a 5-0 win against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. The semi-finals would later lead them into a 3-2 win over the defending champions, the Charleston Battery. The last game was a 7-4 win over the Charlotte Eagles in front of a record crowd of 20,886 at the Citrus Bowl. This marked their second championship in three years.
Although they play in the third-tier USL Pro, Orlando City has been running a franchise as if they are a major league team. When asked about what the secret was, Rawlins simply laughed.
“I’m not sure there’s a secret per se. There are a number of things that come together. We are very fortunate to have a strong ownership group who believes in the vision we set forth. That’s the single most important thing, leadership from the top believing in the organization is a big help.”
“Simply put, we know how to run a football club. Beyond that, its attention to details,” Rawlins continued. “There’s not one thing you can do to make a team successful, there are a hundred things you have to do, and it’s all about the details. Making sure you do everything for the best of your ability.”
Because of the huge number of tourists that flood Orlando on a yearly basis, Orlando City targets itself as a global brand in order to attract these people; however, their main objective is the local fan.
“Our primary focus is the fans here in Central Florida,” stressed Rawlins. “People in Orlando want the city to be known as a soccer city, they’ve taken this game to heart.”
“We recognize we are in a very unique marketplace here in Orlando, we have 59 million visitors a year and the vast majority of these people are from countries where soccer is the number one sport.”
With people coming from all parts of the world, it would be difficult to “convert” them to Orlando City fans, Rawlins understands that. “We have a unique opportunity to market ourselves to those fans, to become their second favorite team. That’s a big opportunity.”
Many are still skeptical of the idea of Major League Soccer returning to Central Florida after having such a bad experience the first time. Rawlins understands the concern but urges to give it a shot.
“You’ve got to remember how it was 12 years go,” explains Rawlins. “MLS was starting to implement the changes that would make MLS what it is today. Back then teams were playing in giant football coliseums; the game was struggling to get a foothold. It’s a very different time. What sets us apart today is that we have a great marketplace, and one of the fastest growing cities in the country.”
In a city whose only other major league sports team is the Orlando Magic, Orlando City Soccer has an opportunity to tap into that fan base during the NBA off season and convert them to soccer fans.
“With the average age in Orlando being 35 years old,” added Rawlins. “Our age demographic is perfect for soccer. Soccer is part of their culture, it’s what they love. It’s a proven marketplace, and Orlando is becoming a soccer town a little more everyday.”