Jeff Bradley: Orlando City president Phil Rawlins talks about MLS expansion
As part of his weekly series on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley sits down with Phil Rawlins, the owner and president of the USL PRO's Orlando City Soccer Club, fresh off the news that the Orange County Board of Commissioners has voted in favor of the approval of funds for a new downtown soccer stadium in Orlando. MLS is reportedly trying to reach an expansion agreement with Orlando City, which would pave the way for the club to join MLS in 2015.
BRADLEY: What's the feeling down there in Orlando following the vote, and what should we look for in the coming weeks?
RAWLINS: I think the feeling it's a feeling of congratulations and success, and a feeling now that this process is almost complete. People are really excited with the result. It's been a long road getting the tourist industry and the city together in the last few weeks has taken a lot of work, but we're obviously delighted with the outcome.
Now, in the next few weeks, we can really focus on getting the expansion agreement finished off with Major League Soccer and hopefully making an announcement in the next month.
BRADLEY: And how about you? What were your emotions like Tuesday night when you heard the results of the vote?
RAWLINS: The biggest single feeling I had was the sense of relief. Personally, for me, it's been a seven-year journey. Three years here in Orlando. I've had a great team of people behind me in the front office, and with the coaching staff. I breathed a huge sigh of relief that this is done, finally. We're going to make the dream a reality. It's the beginning of the journey, not the end. We intend to create a worldwide soccer brand and a very competitive MLS team that's going to challenge for MLS Cups and CONCACAF Champions League places and everything else that's up for grabs.
BRADLEY: Why is now the right time for Orlando to be in MLS?
RAWLINS: It's a good question, and I point to last year, which was the culmination of three years of hard work and effort that we put into this marketplace. When we drew 21,000 for the championship game, it was the result of what we'd put into building this club. It's all about unity and the community are behind us. So it's the perfect time to bring Major League Soccer to Orlando and we're delighted to be on our way.
BRADLEY: Describe the location of the downtown stadium and what you anticipate will be the typical game day atmosphere.
RAWLINS: I'll borrow a line from Mark Abbott. When I showed him where our stadium was going to be he said, "This is probably the best downtown location in all of MLS." We're going to be two blocks west of the Amway Center, right on Church Street, which is the main sports and entertainment corridor in the city. We'll be about two blocks away from all the bars and restaurants. It's a great location with lots of parking within a mile of the stadium, a free shuttle bus that will run from the back and front of the stadium. It's close to two stations on the Sun Rail System. It's really superb in all regards.
Orlando City SC won the USL PRO title this year, and typically play in front of a raucous crowd at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. They expect to play there for the beginning of the 2015 MLS season before opening up a new soccer-specific stadium.
(USA Today Sports)
BRADLEY: Do you sense the soccer fans of Florida are hungry for a second chance to prove an MLS team can thrive there after the demise of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion after the 2001 season?
RAWLINS: I think more than anything there's a sense of civic pride. The people of Orlando, our fanbase in particular, are wanting something to call their own. Something to own and work with in the community and that's what Orlando City has provided. I don't think it's about revenge, it's about making this our own and taking advantage of this opportunity. They want to own something. We're very proud as Orlandoans and we want to the club to represent the city to the best of its ability. We're just looking forward to not only taking part in MLS, but making a real impact.
BRADLEY: Is it perhaps asking too much that you launch in 2015? Is there any chance you back off a bit and push things back until 2016?
RAWLINS: Our stated goal has always been 2015 and we've always shared that with MLS, so they're very aware of our goals and vision of bringing the league here in '15. We'll stick to that, it's what we want to do. The timing is right. Everything points to us being a very successful franchise in MLS and we want to get that started as soon as possible.
BRADLEY: The plan is to begin in the Citrus Bowl in Year One?
RAWLINS: Yes. It's down to logistics. It's going to take a 15 to 16-month window to build the new stadium. The earliest we can break ground realistically is the spring of next year, so the plan now is to play the first season in what will be a brand new Citrus Bowl, which is going to be a magnificent stadium. In a way, we're going to open two new stadiums. We'll open the new Citrus Bowl and then, in mid-June, open up a brand new, downtown soccer-specific stadium.
BRADLEY: What do you have in the works as far as branding? Are we going to see Orlando City MLS merchandise in the near future?
RAWLINS: We're with Lotto right now and will play in Lotto uniforms again in '14 in USL PRO, but we've already had some introductory meetings with adidas. We've started to talk about our kits. We've got a logo redesign to do. The color purple will very much be ours. We plan on owning that. It's part of the uniqueness. We'll be ready.