Florida is back: Why MLS is convinced it will succeed on second try at Sunshine State

ORLANDO, Fla. – The skeptics about MLS expansion into Florida were in hiding on Tuesday night.  

That’s when Orlando City SC were unveiled as the league’s 21st expansion team and the first team in Florida since the league picked up and left the Sunshine State almost 12 years ago.

And a little more than 200 miles south, it appears David Beckham and his partners are getting closer to putting the pieces together as well.

Speaking to reporters following the celebration to welcome Orlando City as MLS’ 21st franchise and 11th expansion team in 10 years, Commissioner Don Garber confirmed Beckham continues to pursue what would be a second club in Florida as the league looks to reach 24 teams by 2020.

And should the former league icon get the pieces together, Garber told MLSsoccer.com that there’s no reason to believe professional soccer in south Florida can’t succeed this time around.

“I think there isn’t market in America where we couldn’t expand and be successful if we had the right ingredients,” Garber said. “You need big-time owners that believe in the game and have financial resources to support it, particularly build a stadium, you need a stadium site and you need thousands of those crazy purple people.

“I don’t care whether it’s in Orlando or it’s in Austin or it’s in Minneapolis or it’s in Atlanta, Major League Soccer will succeed in any market that has that formula that we need to connect. Orlando is coming in 13 years after we left Florida. I’m convinced we can go back to Miami with those three pillars in place and we’ll be successful in 2017 or 2018 where we weren’t in 2002.”

Orlando City president Phil Rawlins and majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva certainly wouldn’t have invested the time, money and effort necessary to land Central Florida an MLS franchise had they not bought into Garber’s vision.

And even though some continue to point to the contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2002 as a sign that soccer in Florida is ultimately a losing proposition, Orlando City’s rapid rise in just three years signifies that where there is a will – and energized local support, of course – there is a way. 

“First of all, it was another moment, it was another time,” da Silva said Wednesday on a media conference call about elimination of the two teams in 2002. “In that moment, MLS, it was another league, completely different than it is today. Today the league has grown a lot and has been achieving amazing numbers …

"We believe the market here is very well developed and there is no relation in my business point of view with Tampa and Miami in the past.”

Working in Orlando’s favor is that there seems to be a model for success in similar-sized cities such as Portland, Salt Lake City and Kansas City, for example, that have built considerable momentum and rabid MLS followings in recent years.

Portland, in particular, shares a similar sporting landscape, with the NBA the only other major league sport in town. Orlando, however, is far more diverse, with Rawlins highlighting the English ex-pat, Brazilian, Central American and Caribbean communities as proof of a prospective fan base waiting to be drawn in by their local side.

With mid-size markets leading the way across the league, Rawlins is ready to add Orlando to that list – even building a formal partnership with Sporting Kansas City to help harness that momentum as he led his own club’s charge toward expansion.

And now that the Lions are finally at the finish line, he’s certain success isn’t a matter of when not if in Florida.

“MLS is a very relevant league today. It's a strong league, it's a growing league and the sport in this country has grown faster than it has ever grown in this last decade,” Rawlins said. “I think it's the case of the tide is really rising for soccer across the US. We've tapped into a great marketplace in Orlando.

“The city itself is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It has a very young age and soccer's cool, hip and it's the happening sport and it's the sport of the future and the sport of young people in this country and that's what we have here. It's just one of the reasons why Orlando City will be very successful in the coming years.”