Orlando City is headed to MLS.
The USL Pro (third tier) club, which has set minor league attendance records during its three years in Central Florida, received a favorable vote from the Orange County board of commissioners on Tuesday night that paves the way for the construction of a new $84 million downtown stadium. It was the final hurdle for City, which could ascend to MLS as early as 2015.
“We are ecstatic about the positive vote,” club president Phil Rawlins told reporters. “Our fans have been the driving force behind the effort to bring MLS to Orlando. This one is for them.”
There was some last minute haggling as the vote approached. As a result, the club consented to increase funding for public soccer fields by $500,000 and Orlando’s mayor, John “Buddy” Dyer, even agreed to hand over some city parkland to the county free of charge to facilitate field construction.
But in the end, after more than six hours of discussion and public comment, the measure passed by a 5-2 count, which was the minimum margin required. The commissioners were voting on a package that would funnel $94.5 million in tourist tax dollars toward the soccer stadium ($20 million), improvements to the Citrus Bowl (where City has played), a new performing arts center and other initiatives.
Spending public money on bringing MLS to Orlando occupied the vast majority of the debate. Fans filled the county administration building to voice their support and MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott flew in and met with commissioners on Monday to assure them that MLS would come if the stadium was approved. The city council had authorized the funding on Oct. 7.
The club, owned by Brazilian entrepreneur Flávio Augusto da Silva and Rawlins, an English investor, will put $40 million toward the stadium. The city of Orlando will chip in $20 million and the rest will come from other neighboring jurisdictions. Da Silva and Rawlins also will be on the hook for the MLS expansion fee, which is a reported $70 million.
Rawlins told the commissioners Tuesday that entry into MLS would have a $1.2 billion economic impact on the region over the next three decades. City drew more than 20,000 fans to the Citrus Bowl for last month’s USL Pro championship game, which it won to claim its second league title in three seasons. With that stadium slated for renovation, the club will require temporary digs next year.
MLS has promised to expand to 24 teams by the 2020 season. New York City FC and Orlando City will be clubs No. 20 and 21. MLS will continue to focus on the southeast after Orlando comes aboard and hopes to add franchises in Atlanta and Miami. The 24th club is up for grabs.
Over the summer, Da Silva told SI.com that Orlando was “much ahead of New York” in terms of MLS readiness. It has a coaching staff (Rawlins said City would keep head coach Adrian Heath when it moves up), a fan base and a championship tradition. Now it has the promise of a permanent home. "They've made it very clear to us from day one that the key element to this was that we have a funded plan for a soccer-specific stadium," Rawlins told SI.com in July. "If you can finalize it, then that's the last piece of the jigsaw to get an MLS franchise."