The Florida club’s debut this season is the culmination of a long journey
19 March ~ When over 62,000 Floridians packed into Citrus Bowl Stadium last week to witness what MLS had dubbed the "Expansion Bowl", few would have realised that they were witnessing the culmination of a 15 year journey that started at Rochdale’s Spotland.
Orlando City SC president Phil Rawlins had been on the board of hometown team Stoke City since 2000, his first game as director coming in the northern area final of the Auto Windscreens Shield. He witnessed a 3-1 win over Rochdale that would set the Potters on their way to a trip to Wembley, beating Bristol City in the final. Promotion followed two seasons later before finishing second in the Championship in 2007-08 sealed their ascent to the Premier League.
At this time Rawlins sold his US-based sales and marketing consultancy business, OnTarget. With his experience at Stoke, Rawlins decided to start a team in the US with the aim of obtaining an MLS franchise. His adopted hometown of Austin, Texas was an obvious choice but the venture wasn’t initially successful, as he revealed in an interview with the Guardian: “We had been living in Austin for about four years when we started the Aztex and didn’t do a tremendous amount of market research first. Big mistake.”
With crowds of around 3,000 and two MLS teams already established in the state, Austin Aztex weren’t the success Rawlins had hoped for. He then went into partnership with Brazilian billionaire Flávio Augusto da Silva and moved the club 1,000 miles east to Orlando. Florida had seen previous MLS failures from Fort Lauderdale-based Miami Fusion and a Tampa Bay Mutiny team featuring Carlos Valderrama, neither able to build a sustainable fanbase. Orlando was identified as a city with the right blend of a large hispanic population, a young demographic and only one other major league team to compete with.
The results were dramatic with a fervent local support in US soccer’s third division, the USL Pro. Soon, thanks to Da Silva’s billions, Orlando City SC were in a position to join MLS with the announcement made in November 2013 that they would begin alongside fellow expansion team New York City FC in 2015. Rawlins resigned from his post at Stoke last February to concentrate on matters in Orlando.
The last time that soccer made a major impact in Florida was in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s. First with Tampa Bay Rowdies, who were NASL champions in their first year, 1975, then Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Both clubs have been revived recently in the new NASL which is classed as the second tier of the US club game but has no promotion link to MLS. For now, Orlando is the state’s soccer capital and may be for some time given that the David Beckham-backed Miami franchise has still to find a location for a stadium. Sandy Beeson