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Cover 05/08/2013

Orlando City Soccer's goal rush

The Brit, the Brazilian and their (not so?) crazy scheme to make Orlando soccer capital of the Southeast

Photo: Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer, License: N/A

Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer

Photo: Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer, License: N/A

Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer


 

To understand what Phil Rawlins wants to do, it helps to understand where he came from: Stoke-on-Trent, a city of 250,000 about 150 miles northwest of London and 45 miles south of Manchester. Actually, it’s less a city than an amalgamation of six smaller towns that, for good reason, are collectively referred to as “The Potteries.” From the 17th century until just a few decades ago, this area was the epicenter of England’s pottery manufacturing industry.

“It’s a working-class kind of city,” Rawlins says. “It’s gone through quite a transition.”

The best American analogue is perhaps Cleveland or Pittsburgh, blue-collar towns ravished when manufacturing jobs were outsourced to Asia in the ’80s and ’90s, leaving in their wake high unemployment and unrest. By the mid-2000s, however, Stoke-on-Trent had rebounded. The conurbation’s economy is still pottery-based, only now it’s a hub for distribution and call centers, along with ceramics-related tourism and service industries. (One of England’s most popular theme parks, Alton Towers, is just a few miles to the east.)

Like the post-industrial cities of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, Stoke-on-Trent lives and dies by the success of its hometown sports team, Stoke City FC, the second-oldest professional soccer team in the world (and also Orlando City’s “sister team”). “It’s the kind of mentality [where] your sport or your team defines who you are,” Rawlins told me. “You have to be a sports fan. It’s part of you. It’s part of your DNA.”

In Rawlins’ formative years, the Stoke City Potters played in England’s top-flight Premier League. But unlike in the U.S., where, say, the Detroit Lions can suck for years on end and remain in the NFL, in Europe losing gets you demoted. And so it was with Stoke City, which was relegated to the minors for more than two decades, and only rejoined the Premier League in 2008. That demotion was, at the time, a deep psychic blow to a city already embroiled in economic melancholy. And yet the fans kept coming out. Soccer there, like baseball in Philadelphia or football in Baltimore, is a communal experience, almost a civic religion.

“However badly they do, you have to support them,” Rawlins says. “Soccer is one of those games where the crowd and the fans are so involved, so integral to the game. When you get a packed soccer stadium, the crowd can lift [the team] up, can literally motivate them to play. There’s a feeling as a spectator as though you are part of the team.”

This attitude, he says, is at long last catching on stateside. “I can see the same traits in our fans that I saw growing up. True die-hard fans.”

Fans like Rodrigo Guillen, the 28-year-old founder of the Iron Lion Firm, who told me, “Following a team from Europe is one thing, but to have a home team – this whole experience on a personal level has helped me identify who I am now. I’m a supporter.”

 

Rawlins is a salesman, but not an aggressive or obtuse one. He’s immediately likable, chubby-cheeked and charming, with an endearing northern English accent. He got his start in sales in the early ’80s working for Hewlett-Packard in England. In 1989, after seven years with HP, he left to co-found his own firm, the Sales Consultancy (TSC), which assisted big tech firms with sales and marketing strategies.

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