On American Soccer: A closer look at Orlando City's improbable path to MLS

Four years ago, Orlando didn't even have a pro soccer team of any kind, but the vision and ambition of a motivated ownership group has helped the Florida city land a place in MLS.
Almost a dozen years ago, Major League Soccer shut down its two Florida teams in a bid to help save the league from dying an early death. The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were weighing down the league with heavy financial losses and MLS had little choice but to cut bait, even though it meant losing its hold on a place in the Southeastern corner of the United States.

The league is on the verge of finding its way back to the Sunshine State, and it has one ambitious ownership group to thank for it. The Orlando City ownership group has set a new standard for aggressively and successfully fighting for a place at the growing MLS dinner table, and Tuesday’s successful vote by the Orange County Board of Commissioners meant clearing the final hurdle in Orlando City’s bid to complete one of the most improbable expansion bids in the league’s history.

Three years ago Orlando City didn’t even exist, but Phil Rawlins had a grand plan to not only bring a team to Orlando, but to actually bring MLS to the city. It seemed a crazy notion at the time. Rawlins moved the Austin Aztex to Orlando and renamed the team the Orlando City Lions, and when he talked of targeting a seat at the MLS table in just a few year’s time, he sounded more like an idealist than a visionary.

What took place over the next three years was a masterclass in fast-tracking your way into a pro franchise. Orlando City quickly grasped the imagination of the Orlando community, and the club showed real potential as it drew impressive numbers to watch a team playing in USL PRO, the third division of American soccer.

All along the way, Orlando City made its MLS ambitions public knowledge, and used grassroots efforts to grow a movement that helped keep Orlando in the expansion conversation even when MLS had its sights set on a second New York team. For Rawlins and his group, persistence was always going to be a benchmark of their bid and as they continued to court MLS. They took on every hurdle with impressive zeal.

When they were faced with the prospects of needing more financial muscle in their ownership group, up stepped new investor Flavio Augusto Da Silva, who helped give the group the deep pockets MLS requires of any potential expansion franchise. Then came the final, most daunting hurdle, a path to a new stadium.

Any potential Orlando soccer stadium was going to need some public financial backing, and when early resistance from local government looked as though it would derail the group’s efforts, both Orlando City and MLS worked to make the deal happen, securing the necessary votes to help land the larger piece of an overall $35 million worth of public funding for a proposed $85 million stadium.

What Orlando City was able to pull off was nothing short of incredible. Orlando isn’t one of the biggest media markets in the country (33rd overall, behind a dozen other markets currently without MLS teams), nor is Orlando a city with the kind of history of backing the sport that a city like St. Louis does. In fact, four years ago, there was no pro soccer team of any level there and the city trailed the likes of Miami and Tampa on any list of potential Florida homes for MLS.

Orlando City overcame all that with a combination of determination, organization and smart planning that culminated in winning over MLS even after initially seeming like just another expansion long shot.

The result is not only a chance for MLS to swoop back into the Southeast (Atlanta and Miami are expansion favorites, and their candidacies are only strengthened by Orlando’s inclusion), but also a blueprint for prospective expansion groups to follow.

One thing Orlando’s soon-to-be successful MLS expansion bid certainly has done is eliminate any excuses for other cities to have when it comes to chasing down their own place at the MLS table. If Orlando City can make it happen, there is no reason cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis or Sacramento can’t do the same.

That isn’t to say it will be easy, but Orlando City has helped strengthen MLS by not only successfully earning its place in the league, but by charting a course for others to follow, which is something MLS desperately needed as it plans rapid expansion.

Perhaps it is fitting then that, a dozen years after a presence in Florida threatened to doom the league, a return to the state could be the jumping off point for MLS to grow in ways few could have imagined back in 2001.

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