Former Tampa Bay Mutiny boss Nick Sakiewicz: Florida has grown up, ready for MLS' return

When Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz left his job running the Tampa Bay Mutiny to take over the MetroStars in 1999, he had some advice for incoming Mutiny president Bill Manning, now the president of Real Salt Lake.

“When I walked out the door there, I said to Bill, ‘When you wake up in the morning, you should work on two things and two things only,’” Sakiewicz told MLSsoccer.com this week. “One is getting an owner, and two is getting a soccer-specific stadium built. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that there. I think the team struggled after I left. Attendance was down and ultimately we reorganized the league.”

That MLS reorganization, of course, included the contraction of the Tampa Bay Mutiny – which was operated and funded by the league office – as well as the other Florida franchise, the Miami Fusion.

But more than a decade later, MLS is set to return to the Sunshine State with this week’s official announcement that Orlando City Soccer Club will become the league’s 21st franchise.

And for people like Sakiewicz who once had a stake in professional soccer in Florida, it’s an exciting development.

“I wouldn’t call it redemption,” Sakiewicz said. “I’d call it more satisfaction.”

There are many reasons why Orlando are primed to succeed where the Mutiny and Fusion did not, but for Sakiewicz, it’s as simple fans as soccer fans in the region growing up.

“It’s not dissimilar to Philly,” said Sakiewicz, who became the Union’s CEO in 2007 after three years in Tampa and seven years in New Jersey. “All of those kids playing soccer through the '80s and '90s are not kids anymore. Now those 15-year-olds are 35 and 40 and they’re season-ticket holders and they support Orlando City as a USL [PRO] team. The market has really grown up. I think it’s the same story in pretty much any MLS market.”

While it was naturally difficult to see the Mutiny fold after he had gone to the MetroStars, Sakiewicz said he was proud of his accomplishments in Tampa, where he moved the club from Tampa Stadium (“a very difficult place to play in,” he said) to Raymond James Stadium and was named MLS Executive of the Year in 1999.

And he now believes many of the old Mutiny fans will make the short trip to support Orlando City.

“I think that whole corridor, from Tampa to Orlando, is just filled with soccer fans,” Sakiewicz said. “We started to show some really good things in Tampa but it was a different time. Now there are even more fans in that corridor. I think [Tampa] is going to be a great market from Orlando City to draw from, as well as the exploding Orlando market.”

The Union CEO said he’s also hopeful that Miami will be one of the league’s other expansion teams and he believes that former LA Galaxy star David Beckham “can really do something in Miami that a lot of people couldn’t.”

And perhaps the best part for him will be getting to travel with the Union for games against these new clubs.

“I love Florida,” he said. “I’d love to go back a few times during the season.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.