By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 8, 2017) US Soccer Players – What a scene. A wall of soccer fanatics clad head-to-toe in purple, 4,000-strong, filled one end of stadium built purposely for the sport of soccer in the United States. They stood throughout the match, chanting, singing, and imploring for every second of the 90 minutes between the referee’s blows of his whistle as their beloved Lions worked to deliver them the victory they so desperately wanted.
Even those not in the supporters’ end were to a person draped in the club’s trademark color. They, too, cheered and chanted when the situation demanded, and they were no less invested in the happenings on the field than those in the wall. It total, 25,500 fans packed the stands, filling every seat in the place. There were never going to an empty one on the first day out at the club’s new home.
It was a day of celebration, made all the sweeter by the win delivered by substitute Giles Barnes and striker Cyle Larin. That early injury to Kaka? A problem to be sure, but something to worry about later.
The opening of Orlando City Stadium and the MLS match played there on Sunday represented the culmination of a process that began nine years ago and 1,000 miles away in Texas. It took an old fashioned American sports franchise relocation – orchestrated by an Englishman, no less – to set the stage for Orlando City’s entry into the elite of the sport in the United States and Canada.
Back in 2007, Stoke-on-Trent native Phil Rawlins was pondering a move into American soccer after 12 years as a successful businessman in the US. Building on his experience as a board member for this hometown club, Stoke City, Rawlins decided to dive headfirst into the game at the lower division levels by starting a club in Austin, Texas. Austin just happened to be where Rawlins was living at the time. A reasonably sized city, it made sense as a place to start.
A few years into his passion project, Rawlins found himself up against a harsh reality. There wasn’t much appetite for a soccer specific stadium in the Texas capital. New investment – a requirement for second division teams after the shakeup of the USL-1 split in 2010 – wasn’t coming. The investment that Rawlins was able to secure lobbied him to consider other options for markets.
So Rawlins picked up his franchise and moved to Florida. His research had revealed the potential of the city for soccer. With the entire Southeast without an MLS team, there was little competition for both attention and corporate sponsorship. The Citrus Bowl was a readymade temporary home. The political landscape was favorable for getting an MLS-quality stadium project approved.
Orlando delivered on its promise. Thousands showed up to support the USL version of Orlando City, creating enough momentum that MLS tapped the city for one of two expansion franchises entering the league in 2015. Rawlins had reached the first one of his goals, getting his soccer club to the big time.
Although the stadium deal was in place when Orlando City got an MLS team, the club’s roots weren’t truly anchored in the Floridian soil until finishing the building. Now fans who have been supporting the team since its arrival in the region can begin the process of creating a culture unique to a venue that belongs to them. It truly is a realization of everything Rawlins dreamed about not even a decade ago.
The issue of relocation aside (and no, it’s not a small issue), it’s difficult to imagine a similar story happening again. So much had to go right for Rawlins’ path to MLS and a state-of-the-art venue to reach its eventual destination. As MLS quickly fills up to what looks like its full capacity of clubs, the limited number of expansion slots means MLS is turning its eye to more strategic targets. Rawlins’s choice of Orlando proved brilliant, but as larger cities with bigger national profiles step into the competition, another Orlando becomes less likely.
There are a few parallels between Orlando and some of the bidding cities. Places like Sacramento, Cincinnati, and San Antonio have used lower division soccer as a means to prove the viability of their markets for professional soccer. Big crowds to watch soccer below the MLS level is just one part of the story. None of those candidates exist and might matriculate to MLS because of the efforts of a singular individual. If and when any of those towns move up to the top league, they’ll do so on the back of a group of owners and executives.
At the end of 2016, Orlando City announced that Rawlins has stepped back from his day-to-day duties as the club’s president and will maintain a more ceremonial role going forward. On the occasion of that announcement, he summed up the journey that would ultimately reach its climax with the inauguration of the club’s new home.
“The opening of the stadium in March is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle,” Rawlins said. “With the stadium complete I have accomplished all that I promised the community of Central Florida when I arrived in Orlando in 2010.”
While Rawlins will likely always be around Orlando City in some role, he is no longer the driving force behind what Orlando City will be in the future. That means the end of the unique story he himself wrote.
In Austin, he will always be the man who moved away for the greener pastures and the promise of MLS. In Orlando, he will always be the man who built everything Orlando City has become. Without him, there is no stadium and there is no Orlando City Soccer. It’s an “only in America” story that might never happen again.
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