IT WAS A CHRISTMAS EVE MEETING between two soccer lifers with a hankering for a pint and some conversation.
Phil Rawlins was home for the holidays in the English town of Newcastle-under-Lyme when he walked into the Mainwaring Arms pub on Dec. 24, 2007. Rawlins had recently sold his IT sales and marketing consulting business. And although he was still the director of English Premier League side Stoke City, his free time was devoted to founding a soccer club in the United States.
Adrian Heath was, in his own words, as down as he'd ever been. He was a standout player-turned-manager who was between work after being fired from his post as caretaker manager at Coventry City 10 months prior, a job he felt he deserved full-time.
It was just a friendly drink, or at least it was supposed to be. But Rawlins needed a coach. And Heath needed a job.
"In a nice way, he pinned me to the wall for about an hour telling me why he should be our head coach," Rawlins says. "He was very persistent about it."
So persistent that just a few months later, Heath arrived in Austin, Texas, with his wife for a visit, and left with a signed contract to coach the Aztex.
Heath was the club's first and only head coach, while Rawlins was the driving force that eventually moved the club to Orlando. There they won two USL PRO championships and earned the Major League Soccer expansion spot they'd coveted since launching their dreams in Austin.
Roughly seven years after the two men's Christmas Eve pub encounter, Orlando City SC were busy preparing for their first-ever MLS SuperDraft, the latest in a string of nascent experiences in the buildup to the club's expansion season.
But it's not like the duo hadn't been there before. For seven frigid Januarys, Rawlins and Heath had dutifully packed their bags for the SuperDraft. They went to Baltimore (twice), Philadelphia (twice), St. Louis, Kansas City and Indianapolis, always on the fringes, comparing the players taken with their own mock drafts.
"We've been to the SuperDraft every year since this thing started," Heath says. "We've always been on the outside looking in, thinking it would pretty cool to be inside the ropes."
On Jan. 15, Rawlins and Heath weren't just inside the ropes. They held the the No. 1 pick, just 52 days and counting until as many as 60,000 fans will pack the Citrus Bowl for the club's first-ever MLS match.
Monday, Jan. 11 - Three Days Until The Draft
WITH MORE THAN A YEAR to stock Orlando's MLS roster, Heath and general manager Paul McDonough did their work early, departing Ft. Lauderdale and the adidas MLS Player Combine with 20 players under contract.
Former Ballon d'Or winner Kaka headlines the group, reigning USL PRO MVP Kevin Molino provides an explosive link to Orlando's lower-division past and three core MLS veterans – Amobi Okugo, Aurelien Collin and Tally Hall – came on board via trade.
Honduran international Bryan Róchez, just 20 years old, took the team's second DP slot. The Expansion Draft netted more veterans in Donovan Ricketts, Tony Cascio, Danny Mwanga, Pedro Ribeiro and Lewis Neal, who also happened to score the first goal in Orlando's franchise history back in 2011.
Gustavo, a Brazilian central defender nicknamed the "The Refrigerator," arrived Jan. 5, and while Colombian prospects Carlos Rivas, 20, and Cristian Higuita, 21, haven't been officially unveiled yet, the staff has them pegged as starters and believe their pedigrees with Colombia's Deportivo Cali will translate to immediate MLS success.
"We think we've got a couple players that are really going to excite this league," Heath says. "We've got a little bit of everything, We've got physicality. We've got experience. More importantly, we think we've got good talent."
United States national team hopeful Brek Shea is expected to play at left back with Orlando, the club that offered respite after a rough stretch in Europe. (Photo by Orlando City SC)
All of this has come at significant cost, but Orlando's expansion status – and the allocation money that comes with it – allows a degree of wiggle room. It also helps that the roster is filled out by a talented cadre of former USL PRO talent.
"With everything we've done in building up to this, we've never worried too much about allocation or some of those other things," McDonough says. "If we wanted a player, we were just going to try to go get him, obviously within reason."
That mandate certainly applies to Brek Shea, one of the club's biggest signings to date.
McDonough represented Shea during his agent days when he made a $4-million move to Stoke City in Jan. 2013. Nearly two years later – after disappointing stints with the Potters, Barnsley and Birmingham City – Shea returned to MLS, and to McDonough.
When he left the league, Shea was a pacey, powerful left winger who was a year removed from an 11-goal, MVP-caliber season. In Orlando, where he trained during the European offseason last summer, he'll move back a line in order to revive his floundering career.
Heath plans on giving the 24-year-old Shea every opportunity to win the spot at left back, an experiment that started in 2010 on tour in Spain with the Generation adidas squad, took shape under Schellas Hyndman at FC Dallas and now has the blessing of US national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann.
"[Jurgen] liked the idea. We spoke a little bit," McDonough says. "With [Brek's] aerobic capacity, he does really well when he sees everything in front of him. I think with Kaka holding the ball and bringing Rivas in, Brek can go line to line."
Wednesday, Jan. 13 – 28 Hours Until The Draft
JAIRO ARRIETA BECOMES THE LATEST Expansion Draft pick flipped for assets on the eve of the draft, joining Mark Sherrod and Eric Gehrig on the commodity market. D.C. United send an international slot to Orlando for the Costa Rican, and the wheels are moving.
McDonough says Arrieta's roster spot will be taken by 27-year-old Northern Ireland international Martin Paterson, a striker on the books of Championship club Huddersfield Town after stints at Stoke City, Grimsby Town, Scunthorpe United and Burnley.
McDonough lists recent English strikers who have hit double figures in MLS – Luke Rodgers, Dom Dwyer and 2014 Golden Boot winner Bradley Wright-Phillips – and says Paterson, who is out of contract in the summer and arrives on a six-month loan, could be just as successful as his peers, perhaps more.
"He's got a better pedigree than those guys," McDonough says.
While Paterson undergoes a medical back in Orlando, the club has clear needs to fill in Philadelphia, most glaringly at right back. The precocious duo of Rafael Ramos and Tyler Turner is talented, but both could be absent for six weeks during this summer's U-20 World Cup, and experience is needed.
Orlando thought they had an answer in Heath Pearce, a versatile veteran defender picked up in the Expansion Draft. But Pearce turned his interest to Europe after declining what he considered a lowball offer from the club.
Now the team's next chance to fill their need will come on Thursday in the form of three SuperDraft selections, including the first overall pick, and McDonough is busy gauging the market and weighing his first big draft-day decision.
Will Orlando City take the SuperDraft's undisputed top player in UConn striker Cyle Larin, or flip the selection? For now, McDonough is still undecided.
Thursday, 8:30 am ET – 4.25 Hours Until Draft
WITH THE EXPANSIVE LOBBY, bar and restaurant of the Philadelphia Marriott serving as a buzzing open market on the morning of the draft, potential deals begin to take shape. Buyers and sellers are out in force, and there are six clubs interested in dealing with Orlando for the top pick.
The Montreal Impact got things started days ago, just after the Combine ended, with four magic words that kick off most negotiations: "What do you want?" The San Jose Earthquakes, Portland Timbers and Toronto FC are also interested, and the Seattle Sounders offered $100,000 in allocation for the pick the night before.
After insisting that he'd hold onto the selection unless a deal was struck Wednesday night, McDonough approaches the situation pragmatically. Orlando are open to offers, though they feel no pressure to deal.
The price will be allocation money in the six-figures, and a high pick that still allows the Lions to land one of their other primary targets. Right now they're after one of three players: Generation adidas goalkeeper and USMNT prospect Alex Bono, SIU- Edwardsville utility man Matt Polster or St. John's center back Tim Parker.
Montreal are the most likely trade partners. The Impact hold the third overall pick, desperately need a forward and – perhaps just as importantly – the prospect of taking a Canadian at No. 1 for the first time in SuperDraft history might be too much to resist.
But McDonough sees what everyone else does in Larin, who's with Canada at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Jamaica. And he's not sure he can pull the trigger on a trade, even if one of the interested parties meets his asking price.
"There's money in strikers," McDonough says. "It's a guy you should take."
9:50 am ET – Three Hours Until The Draft
WITH THE ORLANDO STAFF increasingly leaning toward holding onto the No. 1 pick, the focus shifts to their secondary targets.
The plan is to take Larin first, and then grab an MLS-ready center back and apprentice goalkeeper with the No. 22 and 25 picks. The problem is, Orlando feel certain their secondary targets won't be around come the second round.
With that in mind, assistant coach Mark Watson goes to work. He was an assistant to Chicago head coach Frank Yallop in San Jose years ago, and he's been tasked with approaching his old friend about the No. 7 pick.
Orlando offer pick No. 22 and $75,000 in allocation for Chicago's pick, with the compensation rising to $100,000 should they take a Generation adidas player. The hope is that the Fire will be more interested in the cash than rolling the dice with a young player.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are also interested in making a deal, but they hold the No. 13 pick. Orlando think that might be too late to safely grab Parker, who is shaping up to be the staff's top target alongside North Carolina State and US U-20 center back Conor Donovan.
In the meantime, with interest in the No. 1 pick lukewarm and their minds close to made up anyway, the staff debate whether to inform Larin of his impending fate.
They decide to let him find out on his own. After all, anything could happen once they hit the SuperDraft floor.
11:45 pm ET – 60 Minutes Until The Draft
FTER SETTLING IN AT THE DRAFT TABLE, assistant coach Ian Fuller brings Larin's highlight reel up on his laptop. Rawlins and owner Flavio Augusto da Silva watch the 19-year-old bang in goal after goal for UConn, where he scored 23 goals in two seasons and was the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore.
Barring some unforeseen turn of events, Larin is headed to Orlando, giving the 50 purple-clad fans already gathered on the draft room floor something to cheer about in between trolling the small contingent of New York City FC fans that have filed in behind them.
In the meantime, the focus is still on moving up the draft board from Nos. 22 and 25. Parker is the target, and potential trade partners drop by the table every few minutes to chat quietly with McDonough as it becomes clear the proposed trade with the Fire is out.
Houston head coach Owen Coyle swings by the table, but laughs off Orlando's interest in a deal for the No. 8 pick. Impact head coach Frank Klopas follows, and then Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. The Whitecaps are still circling, too.
TFC are willing to part with their No. 9 pick, provided they land their top target with their No. 6 pick, for $100,000 in allocation and Orlando's pick at No. 22. Vancouver, it seems, are still trying to determine the market value for their first-round selection.
McDonough says he would pull the trigger if Parker was available and TFC's price dropped to $75,000, but ultimately his "feeling is that the price is just too high."
12:45 pm ET – The First Pick
New Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey makes a last-ditch inquiry about the top pick, but Orlando won't budge. The decision is already made. The paperwork has been filled out for half an hour, sitting face down in front of McDonough.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber strides to the podium and announces Larin as the No. 1 pick, prompting a pre-recorded video message from the teenager ahead of Canada's must-win match against El Salvador on Thursday night in Jamaica.
"He was always the guy going in," McDonough says as Orlando City's supporters celebrate. "We thought that if we were going to move around, it had to be something special."
12:46 pm ET – Larin Learns His Fate
More than 1,500 miles away in Montego Bay with his Canadian teammates, Larin stares intently at the laptop screen that will inform him of his professional fate.
As soon as his teammates hear the word "UConn" from Garber's mouth, they set upon Larin, roughing him up affectionately in the way teenage boys do when one of their own hits it big. The team's media staff has set up camera to capture his reaction, and the clip is an instant sensation in Orlando, Ontario and beyond.
Cyle Larin was widely considered the top prospect in this year's draft class after just two years at UConn. (Photo courtesy of UConn)
Larin cracks a wry smile, and listens as analysts praise the pick. He had options in Belgium and Holland, but decided feeling comfortable in his first-ever professional environment was paramount to his own development.
"I could have went to Europe," Larin says later, "but I think it was better for me to stay in North America and start my career here."
Orlando are clearly delighted with that decision, but McDonough and Heath know this isn't a pick for the present.
With Paterson soon to sign, Róchez on DP money and Mwanga looking to reboot his career after he was taken first overall in 2010, there may not be much playing time to go around in 2015.
For any or all of Orlando's picks, Larin included, that could mean significant time on loan at Louisville City in USL PRO. But there's a chance that the staff will keep Larin with the first team regardless of the depth chart. The more time he spends with Heath, the better.
"If anyone can get the goods out of Larin," McDonough says confidently, "it'll be Adrian."
Though Canada suffered a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to El Salvador just hours after he went No. 1 – the game-winning goal was set up by a ricochet that came off his chest – Larin still manages to clear his mind at the end of a life-changing day.
"Once I got back in my room, I really started thinking about my career and Orlando," Larin says. "That's when I really started thinking, ‘I'm a professional soccer player now.'"
1:15 pm ET – Orlando Lose Polster And Parker
Chicago didn't bite on Orlando's earlier trade proposal, and now it's clear why. The Fire take Polster off the board at No. 7.
There was a chance earlier in the day that Orlando could make a deal for one of Toronto's picks at No. 9 or 11 in order to secure Parker, but nothing pans out. The Reds take center backs Clément Simonin at No. 9 and and Skylar Thomas at No. 11.
Vancouver are still hovering around looking for a deal, though, floating $100,000 as a potential price for No. 13, and even take a five-minute timeout – one of a record five in the first round – to give themselves additional time to complete a deal that ultimately never materializes.
In the end, the Whitecaps take Parker, dropping by the Orlando table to give McDonough a heads up before Garber reads the pick on stage.
"It wasn't about the money. We made the offers," McDonough says. "Teams just liked their guys, and that's the way it goes. We were prepared to deal. We just couldn't get it done."
2:44 pm ET – Orlando Draft Donovan And Barrett
Despite their failed forays into the trade market and late offers from the Red Bulls – a young reserve player for either of the Lions' second-round picks – and Portland – Nos. 24 and 32 for the Lions' pick at the top of the second round – Orlando ultimately get what they want without having to sacrifice a single allocation dollar.
Donovan, the N.C. State defender who the team ranked second among center backs behind Parker, stays on the board far later than they expected, and there's no hesitation when the 22nd pick rolls around. McDonough knows it will take some time before Donovan is ready for MLS minutes, but Orlando believe the US youth international has a long career in front of him.
Three picks later, the Lions use their final selection at No. 25 – acquired via San Jose for Sherrod a month before – on Tulsa attacker Akeil Barrett, the top-ranked right winger on their board.
They'd planned on taking a goalkeeper – perhaps Northwestern's Tyler Miller or Washington's Spencer Richey – but both could be available with the first pick of the third round less than a week later, and Fuller ultimately compares Barrett to Molino, the reigning USL PRO MVP who is the likely starter at right wing for Orlando in 2015.
The comparison helps sway the rest of the staff, and Orlando City's draft day is done. Three more players are in, and eight days remain until preseason begins in earnest.
"It's not exactly the way we drew it up, but we're happy," McDonough says. "We tried to move up on three occasions to try to get an experienced center back that we really liked. We missed out. We couldn't believe Donovan fell that low. When he did, it was a no brainer for us."
3:15 pm ET – Orlando City Take Stock
Orlando wait out the second round as Fuller fills in the depth chart with Larin, Donovan and Barrett, and begins crunching the numbers.
McDonough and Heath know they've assembled a youthful squad, but even they're a bit surprised when Fuller's calculator spits out an average age of 24, the third youngest group in MLS behind Vancouver and Colorado.
"The hard part for us is we're building the club," McDonough says. "It is so important to have Kaka. He'll make the young ones better."
There are also more veteran reinforcements on the way. While juggling the draft, the Orlando staff are also waiting on the signature of an unnamed Brazilian center back in his early 30s who's played in Copa Libertadores, and is in the process of negotiating a buyout from his current club.
"Our plan and our goal is to make the playoffs in our first year, and we've said that since day one," Rawlins says. "I've had a few people that‘ve said that's awfully brave of you or why have you done that, but that's our goal. Why wouldn't we be upfront about it?"
Preseason begins on Friday, and a new training facility will welcome the squad for their first training session. Meanwhile, in the team's offices, a countdown clock dutifully ticks down to the most important first in the club's history.
"You're almost overwhelmed with firsts," Rawlins says. "There's a first every week, sometimes there's a first every day. It's been a year of firsts, but we've arrived."
THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer.