For the last six years, Orlando City SC President Phil Rawlins has been on a journey.
It is a story that may sound very familiar to those that followed the Seattle Sounders in the second division and the efforts of the club’s owner, Adrian Hanauer, to move to Major League Soccer.
In Seattle in 2004 rumors circulated rampantly that Seattle was in the running for one of two expansion slots that would join the league in 2005. One, it had been announced, would go to Chivas USA. While much of the speculation circled around Seattle, the second bid would end up going to Real Salt Lake.
Over the next three years, Hanauer worked to check off all the boxes in a list of requirements the league set forth before finally announcing entry into the league in 2007, just as the Sounders were preparing to celebrate their fourth championship in the A-League and USL-1 in 14 years at that level.
Similarly in Orlando, Rawlins set forth with the stated goal of lifting Orlando City SC to MLS, setting a target for the 2015 season.
“It’s been a journey, shall we say,” Rawlins said on Sunday as the USL club took on the Sounders FC reserves at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. “But I feel like we are getting toward the end of it, so it’s good.”
Last week, that objective had a landmark moment as the mayors of Orlando and Orange County announced a funding plan that looks to pave the way for construction of an $85-million downtown stadium. The project still needs to go through two more votes with the county commissioners and city commissioners, but Rawlins is optimistic that they will see the benefits Major League Soccer can bring to the community.
It was just the latest step along the way for Rawlins, who first sat down with MLS officials at the 2011 MLS SuperDraft and drew up the groundwork for bringing top-flight soccer to Orlando.
“We are organizationally ready. We’ve got a great staff and we don’t operate as a typical USL club,” he said. “We’ve got an organization that’s ready to step up.”
It was a bit of serendipity that Sounders FC was in town on the weekend that announcement was made. The Seattle club is in its fifth MLS season after playing in the second division from 1994-2008.
While Seattle has been a club that Orlando can point to as a success story and there are things that Rawlins has mimicked with his club – such as frequent meetings with fan representatives similar to how Sounders FC meets with the Alliance Council – he is steadfast that what made things work in places like Seattle, Vancouver and Portland may not be what builds success in Florida.
“Anybody would seek to emulate the success of Seattle,” he said. “The first thing you learn is that every market is different. Because it worked in Seattle, doesn’t mean it will work in Orlando. You’ve got to be able to sort out what will work for you in your market. There’s no one thing you can do that means 30,000 fans will turn up.”
It may not have been 30,000, but the fans in Orlando turned up in droves for Sunday’s match with the Sounders FC reserve team. A club-record crowd of 10,697 made for a raucous atmosphere at the Citrus Bowl, packing the lower bowl with supporters at the closed end of the horseshoe singing, chanting and flag-waving for 90 minutes.
Like the organization operating behind the scenes, the fans are ready to make the leap, too.
“The support we’ve had … they’re vociferous, they’re loud, they’re passionate. They’ve got all the makings of the deal that is going on in the Pacific Northwest,” Rawlins said, noting that they have been buoyed by a successful club that won the championship in 2011, won the regular season crown in 2011 and 2012 and is poised to achieve that again with a win on Wednesday against the Richmond Kickers. “Winning the championship the first year really cemented the base. The joy and the passion of that night and of that season really gave us a strong supporter base and we’ve been able to build on that ever since.”
The traditions of soccer in Seattle may not be as prevalent, but there is a distinct hunger for big-time professional soccer in Orlando that could soon be quenched, just as it was in 2009 with Sounders FC.