Simon Veness considers the potential of Orlando City as they bid to join the MLS
Simon Veness charts the rise and potential of Orlando City, as they bid to become an MLS franchise.
Last Updated: 16/08/13 8:27am
Now come on a little journey with me as I tell you why a good proportion of Orlando's sporting inhabitants are really, really excited. And it has nothing to do with the fact the rock band Kiss are in town for the Arena Bowl festivities this weekend or that Fox Sports 1 makes its debut on TV.
Basically, the city where I live; the city that became home to a certain Mouse in 1971; the city that has professional basketball but none of the other major sports; the City Beautiful (as it likes to be known) is just about nailed on to be a Major League Soccer city.
For those who can't remember two years ago, here's a quick précis (and no, that's not a kind of French coffee-maker...):
Orlando City Soccer Club was newly-transplanted to central Florida by Phil Rawlins, then the majority owner of the Austin Aztex, who had a vision for an NFL franchise and the middle of Texas wasn't getting it done for him (especially trying to compete with the likes of Dallas and Houston in the same state).
Rawlins, who is also a board member of Stoke City, had persuaded former Stoke and Everton striker Adrian 'Inchy' Heath to become the team's head coach and hitched his hopes to this new soccer bandwagon, that was competing in something called the USL PRO league, nominally two levels below that of the Real Thing in American soccer terms, the MLS.
I say 'nominally,' as, with no relegation or promotion in any US sport, it is a matter of teams showing the right financial muscle and nous in order to climb the greasy pole of success to the next level. In some cases, cities demonstrate the right capabilities, and then teams like the Los Angeles Raiders become the Oakland Raiders, or the New Jersey Nets become the Brooklyn Nets. It is sport as geography.
Anyway, in no time at all (well, about five months in real time, but this is one of those 'flashbacks' where time passes really quickly), City, or The Lions as they like to be known, had successfully marched through their first USL PRO season and carried all before them, winning the title in a WILD championship game at the massive Citrus Bowl that sent their 11,220 fans officially ripe bananas.
The 2012 season was looking to be going the same way but, after winning the league with a record points haul, they were derailed in the play-offs and had to see the cutely-named Charleston Battery claim their crown (Charleston being a key city in both the Civil and Revolutionary wars, you see, hence cannons being one of their main claims to fame).
Now, to be honest, while Heath was rightly miffed to miss out on the key silverware, co-owner Rawlins and his back-room team had bigger fish to fry. As stated in this column two years ago, the Lions had their sights on big game, if you get my animal-induced pun. It was MLS or bust for City, and there was no sign of this bandwagon slowing down in the slightest.
Now, fast forward to the past few weeks and things have been at fever pitch for these Lions, who are realistically still at cub stage ('That's enough animal jokes,' - Ed). Despite running a close second to New York City for the 20th MLS franchise earlier this year, Rawlins and Co were confident the top goal was still in sight.
The addition of Brazilian millionaire Flavio Augusto da Silva as the majority owner in February, with Rawlins officially becoming club president, produced a double-pronged attack on the MLS summit as 1) it added some key financial muscle to elevate the team's bid to NatWest status, and 2) it gave them a huge hook for the South American market.
The latter is important as about two thirds of Brazil (current population: 197 million) descends on Orlando in the summer for 'ferias' (that's 'holidays' to you and me). And, if there is one country on earth that is totally round-ball obsessed, it is the hosts of the next World Cup. Hence having a Brazilian official who is keenly interested in taking the Lions to the next level is officially Very Smart Business. Indeed.
Not only has MLS taken even more notice of Orlando as a result, so has Orlando itself, in the form of the city and county mayors, who only last week threw their not-inconsiderable weight behind the team's appeal for $20million in public funding for a soccer-specific stadium (which isn't to say that the Mayors are packing on a few extra pounds, but that their backing carries a fair amount of political clout, especially City Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has a happy knack for a deal that benefits the local community).
For, while the Lions have been fairly successful at the cavernous Citrus Bowl (official capacity: 70,000), their avid fans still look fairly lost in its capacious depths and it takes about an hour to navigate the complicated concrete staircases and elevators. More importantly, it has a dreaded Astroturf pitch and, even more importantly, MLS hates, and I mean truly hates, their teams playing in these multi-purpose mega-stadia.
Therefore if you really want to be a contender, you have to have a stadium that your fans can own as much as, well, the owners, really. A real, proper, honest-to-goodness football stadium. And that's why Rawlins and Da Silva have become best buds with the two Mayors; they have much of the funding in place themselves, but it does need a substantial wedge from public coffers to set the ball rolling.
With the full mayoral backing, the stadium idea now goes to a formal vote of the County Commission next month and the old adage of "If You Build It, They Will Allow You Into MLS" should certainly hold true.
I managed to get a few minutes with Rawlins earlier this week - who must genuinely be one of the busiest men in Florida right now, as his life revolves around one meeting after another, including the fairly key one of another play-off bid as the Lions finished runner-up to Richmond in USL PRO this week and have home advantage for the quarter-final round on August 24 - and, while he is realistic enough to know nothing is yet signed, sealed and delivered, he is bullish about their chances.
He told me: "We've been working hard over the past three years to bring MLS to Orlando, with many steps occurring in the process that lead us to the where we are today. Our fans have and will always be our driving point. Thanks to them, we are in this position.
"But we were always confident MLS could be a reality. Our attendances keep going up and the potential for a truly global brand here is very real. Orlando had 57 million visitors in 2012 and we would be very happy to be 'everyone's second team'!"
So, while Heath goes in search of more silverware in the next few weeks, Rawlins and Co will be searching for the necessary County Commission votes to make the pipedream of just three years ago a very firm reality in 2015 or '16.
And, if David Beckham does decide to pitch in with the fledgling Miami franchise just down the road, well, he might well find that Kaka has beaten him to the punch here in Florida. Because do you know who Mr Da Silva is also best buds with? Yup, you guessed it, the largely surplus-to-requirements Brazilian ace at Real Madrid who already has a house here in Orlando.
Now how does THAT sound to casual soccer fans who just might be thinking of summer 'ferias' here in central Florida?!