ORLANDO — The message hits you—in purple, of course—as soon as you walk into the headquarters of the hottest new team in Major League Soccer: DEFY EXPECTATIONS. It’s an accurate mission statement for Orlando City, The Expansion Team That Could, an outfit that had the audacity to bring first-division soccer back to a state (Florida) that had been a graveyard for not one but two MLS teams in 2002.
Something remarkable is happening here in central Florida: A soccer culture is developing right before our eyes. You can see it on Church Street, the nightlife center in downtown Orlando, where throngs of fans congregate on gamedays. You can see it in the purple Lions magnets on cars all over town. And you can see it in the revamped Citrus Bowl, Orlando City’s temporary home, where a multicultural fanbase cheers on their team, including former World Player of the Year Kaká, in critical-mass numbers.
Here were Orlando City’s attendance numbers for its first three home dates:
Phil Rawlins doesn’t have any. The club’s founder and president had no prior ties to Orlando when he began looking into cities where he could move the minor-league team he had started in Austin, Texas, in 2007. All he knew was that he wanted it to become an MLS team eventually, and for that to happen, the chances were best in the Southeast.
“Orlando was on the list, but it was kind of in the middle of the list,” he explains, noting that Birmingham, Alabama, and Charleston, S.C., were originally higher up that list. “But the more due diligence we did, Orlando rose to the top of the list.”
“The city was craving an identity,” he continues. “Everybody knows Orlando, everybody all over the world, but they think of it as being one very large tourist attraction. And there’s actually a vibrant, exciting city here. The citizens know about it because they live here. So there’s a little bit of an edge about: Who are we? We have a persona. We are real people, a real city, and we don’t all live in a castle. So we tapped into that.”
The path from USL PRO to MLS was more or less direct. Rawlins moved the team to Orlando in 2010, and in short course he set the table for on-field success (OCSC won two USL PRO titles in four years); brought in a majority owner, the Brazilian billionaire Flávio Augusto da Silva; helped form a private-public partnership that won support to build a soccer stadium in Orlando, which will be ready for 2016; and, in November 2013, got the sign-off to become an MLS expansion team (for a $70 million fee).
Along the way, the club signed Kaká thanks to the player’s close relationship with Da Silva.
Landing Da Silva himself was serendipity. To hear Rawlins tell the story, the team’s goalkeeper coach, a Brazilian, came into his office one day saying one of the youth team’s parents wanted to meet him. Rawlins begged off at first, but then came the reply: “I think he wants to buy an MLS club.”
“Lo and behold, Flávio walked into the office,” says Rawlins with a giant laugh. “He was just in the process of selling his company in Brazil. Like myself, he got enchanted with the opportunity of soccer in the U.S. and really felt it was taking off. And he wanted to be involved in MLS.”
Like most expansion teams, Orlando City is a work in progress, with one win, two ties and two losses in its first five games. But the buzz for the team in Orlando is palpable, something that feels like it could be here to stay. The club has just under 14,000 season-ticket holders, firmly within the top third of MLS, and a baseline number considerably higher than what the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny averaged during their brief tenures as MLS franchises.
The happy question being asked these days is whether the stadium opening next year will need to be expanded sooner rather than later from the planned 20,000.
Rawlins says it’s certainly a possibility. “We designed it in such a way that we’ll start around 20,000, but we can pretty easily take that to 26,000 or 27,000 without too much effort,” he says. “We had to guess at something two years ago. If you look across the league, the average is 20,000. So we felt as the 19th-biggest marketplace that 20,000 was a good, comfortable number. The league did too. Of course, two years later we’re hitting 30,000. These next few games for us are really important, because they start to prove out just how big a marketplace this is.”
Rawlins, an Englishman, grew up near the club Stoke City, went to his first game at age five and became a lifelong fan.
He came to the U.S. in 1994 and built a successful sales and marketing consulting group.
Soon after selling his company in 2000, he contacted Stoke City (then in the English third tier) and told the club he wanted to sponsor its youth academy.
He became a minority owner, acquiring 15 percent of the club, and in time learned the ropes of the soccer business as Stoke eventually made it to the English Premier League.
With the Lions off to a smashing start at the gate, the team is evoking comparisons to some of MLS’s biggest success stories. On the one hand, Orlando is a little like Portland–the two square off in the Rose City this weekend–another city with a relatively small population (around 2.2 million), just one other major league sports team (an NBA outfit) and a young age demographic. (Orlando’s average age is 34.)
On the other hand, Orlando is a little like Kansas City, another team that showed you can turn a soccer graveyard into a fútbol-mad populace. Thirteen years after the sad departures of the Mutiny and Fusion, Florida isn’t a place where MLS teams go to die anymore.
In fact, they can thrive here.