USA flagWhen one thinks of Orlando, Florida, one does not immediately think of football (or Soccer if you want to carry on in an American rhetoric); the word Florida has connotations of beautiful blue skies, crisp golden beaches and of course theme parks, including the home of Disneyland – not the kind of place you would expect to find a thriving, upcoming football club.

Not only is there a resurgent stream in the area’s soccer interest, but this team could be featuring amongst North America’s elite clubs in the near future. The people in charge of the MLS have made no secret of their desire to further expand the MLS from 19 to 20 franchises, after a few seasons of relative success. So, is there a possibility that Orlando could have a team representing the city in Major League Soccer (MLS) and become the new 20th MLS franchise? The answer is basically, yes they could, but they might have a long road ahead of them first.

The idea of the MLS first came into fruition in December 1993, 7 months before the US was due to host the 1994 World Cup. The US Soccer federation had made a promise to FIFA, following the awarding of World Cup 94, that they would make a serious effort to create a professional league in the country to promote and develop the sport – this would be the first professional league in the US since the famous NASL, which featured George Best, Rodney Marsh and of course the New York Cosmos and their collection of stars that included Pele and Beckenbauer.

The league began in 1996, but it never really got going, largely because of a lack of quality on the pitch and the fact that the pitches were usually in stadiums that were designated for American Football. 1999 saw the appointment of Don Garber as MLS commissioner, who made it his sole purpose to improve the MLS, both on and off the field. He immediately started to bring the league more in line with other more respected leagues. The improvement in the quality of the league at the turn of the millennium was perhaps evident by the USA’s good showing at the 2002 World Cup, but the league was still not where it wanted to be.

Garber repeatedly emphasised during the early 00s that he had a long term strategy to enhance the MLS and that people needed to be patient with his plan, known as the “Garber League Building Plan”. One of the key features of this plan was to introduce soccer-specific stadiums for each club. The league has gone from strength to strength during the past decade, thanks to Garber’s ideas being seen through. At the start of the 2012 MLS season 15 of the 19 teams now play at their own stadium or a venue renovated for the purpose of a football team.

The size of the league has also fluctuated throughout its history with it staying around the ten team mark for most of the first decade. The league has grown since the early 2000s with new franchises entering the league over the years (and some leaving).  The MLS now contains 19 teams, with a Western and Eastern conference separating them. Garber has openly talked of the league being increased to 20 and, he hopes, 22 teams by the end of the decade.

“The Don” as he is known, will be making a visit to Orlando City‘s pre-season fixture on March 1st to watch the team take on MLS team Toronto FC in the magically named “2012 Disney Soccer Pro Classic”. He will also be there inspecting the club and to assess whether they are a viable option to become a future MLS franchise.

Orlando City SC are really beginning to cause a stir in the leagues below the MLS and with ambitious owner, Phil Rawlins, anything is possible.

Rawlins’ first venture into the American soccer scene was with the Austin Aztex, which was formed in 2008. Rawlins also serves on the board at Stoke City and soon strong bonds were formed between the Austin club and Stoke. Austin were a team progressing well both on and off the field with an average attendance of 3,773 – impressive for a football team in an area that was in love with American Football.

Unfortunately, many felt that the long term prospects of football excelling in the area and the opportunity for the Aztex to become an MLS franchise were very slim. There was very little chance of increasing the fan base of the Aztex and travelling distances for away fixtures were immense – the nearest club being in St. Louis over 850 miles.

Move to Orlando

Rumours began circulating that Rawlins was seeking investment in the club and considering the idea of relocation to an area with a larger potential fan base. As expected, on the 25thOctober 2010, Phil Rawlins revealed that the club had been sold to a UK-led consortium and that they would be relocating to Orlando under the name Orlando City Soccer Club. The club would be participating in the newly-formed USL Pro league, which was essentially a rebranding of the third tier on the American soccer pyramid, behind the NASL and the MLS.

Rawlins had done a commendable job at Austin but although investors were impressed with the club and how it was being running on and off the pitch, they were not so confident that it would be financially rewarding in the long term; as Rawlins explained: “We were looking for additional ownership and to broaden our ownership base in the Austin marketplace. We were approached by a number of people who loved what we were doing as a club both on the field and off the field but who didn’t believe in the long-term viability of Austin as a marketplace.”

Rawlins then what onto cite other problems that existed at the club: “We were playing in a high school stadium, with American football lines on the field, no corporate facilities per se, no ability to sell alcohol and in the medium term it didn’t look like that picture was going to change.”

Orlando City’s inaugural game came against MLS side Philadelphia Union, who they impressively beat 1-0. There was a massive buzz around the place leading up to the game and it became apparent that there was definitely a craving for a football club in the state of Florida. The game drew a decent crowd that even included the iconic Colombian Carlos Valderrama.

The club play their home fixtures at the sweetly-named Florida Citrus Bowl, a stadium that has been around since the 1930s under various guises (Orlando Stadium, Tangerine Bowl) and has been home to various short lived, Florida-based, American football teams such as the Florida Blazers, Orlando Thunder and the Florida Tuskers. The stadium was also used during the 1994 World Cup where it hosted 4 games, including 2 losses for the Irish against Mexico and their 2nd Round knockout at the hands of Holland; the stadium even hosted Wrestlemania in 2008!

The inaugural season of the USL Pro League could not have gone any better for Orlando City; the team romped to the top of the 24 game regular season league table, thus claiming the USL Pro Regular Season trophy. The club made their way through the ensuing playoff format to the championship final, where they defeated Harrisburg City Islanders in a thrilling game that was decided on penalties to win the USL Pro Championship outright. The team further demonstrated their qualities against teams from the Premiership – a 1-0 friendly victory over Newcastle United and a battling display against Bolton Wanderers, which Orlando lost 3-1.

The team performed impressively off the field securing a strong and passionate fan base very quickly; the club’s average attendance exceeded 5,000, massively overshadowing other teams in the league, with the exception of the long running (long running for a US team anyway) Rochester Rhinos. For the playoff final against Harrisburg, which Orlando hosted as they finished higher than Harrisburg in the regular season, they drew in 11,000 fans to the Citrus Bowl.

Bond between club and community

It was commented on during the club’s Austin incarnation, how successful they were at moulding a bond between the club and the local community; this quality has carried on in Orlando as is demonstrated by the club’s impressive attendance figures, but also by Rawlins introducing the requirement of players to complete community service; Rawlins makes players fulfil a minimum of 28 hours community service.

Rawlins claims this is to inspire the young people in the local community, as he explains, “Once kids latch on to a player they tend to follow them and they want to be around them and see them play.”

Rawlins goes on further to state that he feels it is the player’s responsibility to be a “good citizen” – a very traditional British value for a club that appears to be steeped in British-ness.

Rawlins has brought his links with Stoke to the Orlando club with 3 ex-Potters players in the squad for the 2012 season: Lewis Neal, James O’ Connor and Stoke manager Tony Pulis’ son, Anthony Pulis. The links with Stoke continue off the field as they are managed by another former Stoke player, although he is perhaps best remembered for his time with Everton, Adrian Heath – or “Coach Heath” as he is known Stateside.

Key points for MLS admission

Rawlins explained in a recent interview that the club will most likely be questioned on and judged on three key points by Don Garber when he visits the club to ponder whether they are MLS- material: 1) The club’s fan base; does it have the potential to grow further? How are season tickets sales? 2) Corporate support; are they getting in adequate sponsorship deals to support them if they were to become a MLS franchise? And are these deals sustainable? 3) The stadium: is it soccer specific or has it been renovated for the sole purpose of soccer?

The club would have few concerns about their fan base; since the club arrived in Orlando the fan base has got bigger and bigger with many stating how impressive and loud the support is at the Citrus Bowl. As the 11,000 that turned out for the play-off final demonstrated, there is clearly room to grow the fan base further and improve on the club’s average attendance of over 5,000. The team also plays a very attractive brand of short passing football which could help to further entice fans. With the MLS brand stamped on the team’s sleeves, there is no doubt that the attendances would soar, especially given that they would have a monopoly over soccer fans in state of the Florida. (One box ticked on the MLS checklist).

Corporate support also appears to be at an adequate level for the club. Last year the club signed a sponsorship deal with Heineken making it the official beer of Orlando City SC and with local hotel the Rosen Plaza. Last season’s kits were brandished with ‘Orlando Health’ demonstrating their 3 year deal with the medical providers. With the club being local to the resort, the club also has strong bonds with the Disney corporation, hence their involvement in the preseason Disney Classic tournament, where they will be the sole representative from the USL. Big brand names on board with the club, so another box ticked on the MLS checklist.

The third part of the criteria is where Orlando could slip in their bid to join the MLS. As mentioned earlier, when Garber was made of MLS Commissioner he repeatedly stressed the importance of soccer-specific stadiums. Currently, Orlando do not play in a “soccer-specific stadium” as the Citrus Bowl has been used extensively over the years for various other sports and events before Orlando City had even moved to the stadium. This leaves Rawlins with a decision of what to do with the stadium situation; the option that appears to appeal to him most is renovating the Citrus Bowl so that it fits the criteria of a “soccer-specific stadium”; Rawlins cites the recently formed MLS side, Vancouver Whitecaps as example of where this has been done successfully. However, Rawlins claims that he would like a more intimate stadium that holds around 20,000;  with the capacity of the Citrus Bowl being closer to 70,000, it is difficult to see how it could be renovated to get even close to Rawlins’ desired capacity. This leads to the club’s 2nd option: build a whole new stadium from scratch – Rawlins has already said that he is to meet with city officials to discuss this option. The stadium issue could hamper Orlando’s dream move to the MLS elite if a plan is not put in place rapidly.

Competition from New York

Another hindrance for the Lions (Orlando’s nickname) is the fact that Garber has already strongly suggested that he would like he next franchise to come from New York, so that two MLS clubs would reside in the Big Apple. There seems little doubt that the next franchise will be awarded to a New York-based club as Garber seems adamant that it will happen. One issue that has curtailed this happening though: there is still no new stadium for a new club. Garber has even resorted to employing architects, builders, lawyers and land-use advisers to push through the stadium issue, as he explains: “The issue remains the soccer stadium. We do believe we have two or three sites that are viable, and we’re going to continue to work as hard as we can to move this as fast as we can.’’

Another blemish on Orlando’s bid for the MLS is the failings of the two previous Floridian MLS team, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny. Both teams were successful on the pitch, but both went out of business at the end of the 2001 season, mainly because of poor attendances, financial difficulties and unfavourable lease agreements on their stadiums. When asked about how his team would not the follow the paths of the two former Florida-based franchises, Rawlins claimed that:“The failures in Florida were ten years ago and the league is in a different place to what it was 10 years ago.”

Rawlins comments are fair, as the attendances in the MLS have shot up over the past decade and it is very difficult to argue that soccer is not desired in the state of Florida following the Lions’ successful maiden season and the passionate crowds they have been attracting. Rawlins further supports his argument by pointing towards the clubs that have joined the MLS over the past decade and how they have been very successful on and off the pitch, clubs such as Toronto, Seattle and Vancouver amongst others.

Rawlins drive is surely going to be influential in wooing Garber to the prospect of creating a Central Florida MLS franchise. Many still feel that Orlando bid is closer behind the New York bid than people expect, but it does appear that Orlando City’s most realistic option is to keep improving on the successful start they have made as a club and make a focussed bid to become a MLS franchise the next time the league is expanded or a franchise drops out of the league.

By Matthew Harrison

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona