FOX Soccer Exclusive
New tasks for Orlando's MLS venture
Questions about Florida's investment in Major League Soccer follow Orlando City founder and president Phil Rawlins everywhere he goes. He can't sidestep them. Not after Miami and Tampa Bay ceased operations in January 2002. Not with the rather spotty attendance track records for professional teams in a state filled with plenty of alternative ways to spend time and money.
Rawlins fields the inquiries deftly and willingly. He cites the 20,866 people packed into the Florida Citrus Bowl for the USL Pro final not too long ago. He highlights the demographics in the area and the history of MLS success in similar, one-professional-sport towns like Portland and Salt Lake City. He notes the interest in the United States women's national team's recent visit to Central Florida. And, more often than not, he points to the organic growth of a well-supported side currently plying its trade in the third tier of American soccer.
The fervor rose to the fore when Orlando City finally confirmed its expected ascent to MLS on Tuesday night. The extent of the support from a crowd estimated at 4,000 or so by local police even surprised the man charged with guiding the league's 21st team toward its debut in 2015.
“I got to the venue about 5:30 and I couldn't believe the crowd of people we had in the streets,” Rawlins said during a conference call on Wednesday morning. “The line went around two city blocks trying to get into the venue to hear the announcement live. It was a testament: this is a soccer city. People said soccer couldn't work in the southeast. Well, it absolutely can and we'll have (the evidence) prove it.”
Rawlins and investor/operator Flavio Augusto da Silva toiled earnestly to state their credentials. The duo convinced the MLS Board of Governors about the merits of their bid during the course of this year and steered a stadium funding package through the Orange County Board of Commissioners to remove the last potential hurdle. They mounted a case strong enough to carve out a place in the league's plans for the future.
The task now changes from persuasion to production. It isn't enough to extol promise any longer or herald achievements at a lower level. There are real complications to manage with one last USL Pro season ahead, one critical year for manager Adrian Heath to identify potential cogs and scout for new players on the docket and one $85 million (or higher, if the Florida legislature eventually complies), soccer-specific venue to construct by the summer of 2015.
Orlando City expects some help from potential colleagues once those fundamental pieces are sorted. The looming introduction of David Beckham-backed club in Miami and the persistent scuttlebutt surrounding a team in Atlanta offers hope for a regional rivalry. Da Silva said the prospect of adding a derby or two to Orlando's schedule in the coming years could incite further interest in the side as it settles into the top flight.
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“For us to have a team in Miami, it would be fantastic,” da Silva said. “We believe Miami deserves a MLS team because it's a great city and a great market. There were just 72,000 to watch only one game, Brazil and Honduras. I believe Miami has great potential to be a very good market for MLS. We are really expecting that it will happen as soon as possible.”
Similar sentiments apply to the prospect of adding a Designated Player next year to entice a metropolitan area home to significant Brazilian and British enclaves and provide some impetus for the club to extend its reach globally. Most of the links involve a swoop for AC Milan playmaker Kaka at some point before the team joins MLS, but da Silva said there is no deal in place with the former FIFA World Player of the Year at the present time.
“Everybody knows he is a great friend of mine,” da Silva said. “We have been working together for two years with my company in Brazil as a spokesperson. Every team in the world would love to have Kaka. I don't believe there is any team in the world that would not like to have Kaka. But we don't have anything signed with anyone. We have a plan to have a Brazilian soccer star, an internationally well-known star. That is our priority. If it is Kaka or it is another one, this is our plan. We don't have anything signed with any players from Brazil or any other countries.”
Success cannot hinge on the arrival of an accomplished Brazilian star or the introduction of Miami, though. It is down to the club to assess the significant work ahead, improve its infrastructure accordingly and place itself in the best possible position to thrive in a state where others failed some time ago.
As the evident interest in the announcement and the lower league success hints, it is not an impossible feat to accomplish given the current landscape in Orlando. The ghosts of the Fusion and the Mutiny linger, but this club steps onto a platform far sturdier than the one exited by those two sides.
“The world has really changed dramatically in the last 12 years,” Rawlins said. “Sometimes, we lose sight of how quickly change happens today. When Tampa and Miami failed 12 years ago, the league was in a very different place than it was today. The game itself in this country is in a very different place.”
It is a theory with considerable merit, but the assertions underpinning it will not convince the skeptics outright or provide satisfactory answers to those lingering questions about the viability of MLS in Florida. Only consistent success over a protracted period will validate the belief in this club and this city. And now it is Orlando City's duty to back up its contentions and ensure those inquires fade away in the coming years.
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