Orlando City Soccer's goal rush
The Brit, the Brazilian and their (not so?) crazy scheme to make Orlando soccer capital of the Southeast
Published: May 8, 2013
“Here, there’s a desperate need for attachment to place,” Rawlins would tell me a few days later in his Winter Park office. “The citizens of the city are desperate for something to latch onto to define who they are. That’s one of the voids we’ve filled. People are passionate about what we’ve built for them.”
From the moment Rawlins moved his family and his team from Austin, Texas, to Orlando in 2010, there’s been a singular goal: to join the ranks of Major League Soccer. Publicly, MLS has been supportive but noncommittal. The 19-team league has made clear that its next expansion target is Queens, N.Y., and only after that will it consider future sites. But the Southeast is a logical choice. The closest teams to Florida are in Washington, D.C., and Houston.
While there are other potential MLS contenders in the region, including Miami and Atlanta, “there’s no question Orlando is in the best position,” says Adam Henckler, an Orlando-based soccer blogger who runs the website the Scoring Third. He thinks it likely that MLS will award Orlando a franchise by the end of the year, and the team will start playing in MLS by the 2015 season.
But the league has made it equally clear that to even be considered, Orlando City needs a new, soccer-specific stadium. Rawlins’ ownership group has deep pockets – earlier this year, he announced a partnership with Brazilian entrepreneur Flavio Augusto da Silva, who has committed $80 million toward the stadium and MLS franchise fees – but he also wants taxpayer help. This legislative session, Orlando City spent tens of thousands of dollars, maybe more, on lobbyists trying to capture a 30-year, $30-million sales tax rebate to help finance the stadium. In addition, current plans call for the city and county to each chip in another $25 million, and the Dyer administration has already spent more than $8 million acquiring land for the stadium a few blocks west of the Amway Center on Church Street.
If you’ve listened to the stadium’s proponents in recent months, the arguments probably sound familiar: an economic boom, better quality of life, a “cultural cornerstone for generations to come,” as Dyer put it in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed in March. These are, by and large, the same shopworn, sometimes specious claims espoused by the Orlando Magic and Florida Citrus Sports when they were at the public trough, lobbying for the arena and renovated Citrus Bowl, respectively.
But this time feels different. The push for the basketball arena and Citrus Bowl renovation was elite-driven, top-down, muscled through by an edifice-obsessed mayor at the behest of moneyed interests. This isn’t that. The groundswell behind Orlando City is somehow more genuine, more grass-roots, propelled by true believers in both the sport’s appeal and Orlando’s viability as the Southeast’s soccer mecca. And there is no truer believer than Phil Rawlins – a man who, if he pulls this off, will have done so by sheer force of will and fervor, and just a bit of luck.
> Email Jeffrey Billman