Major League Soccer has birthed a new team on the East Coast.
Orlando City SC, backed by Flavio Augusto da Silva, a Brazilian business man, and Phil Rawlins, a British-born investor who owns part of Stoke City, will begin play in 2015. Their primary color will be purple. Their nickname is the Lions. And they will play in the Florida Citrus Bowl before moving into a brand new, 18,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium whose construction is expected to begin next spring.
Building the stadium and establishing a club mentality may take some time. But creating an identity won't. That's because Orlando has been kicking and screaming for a professional soccer team since 2010.
After founding the club as the Texas-based Austin Aztex in 2008, Rawlins moved his franchise to Orlando as a minor league team that still competes in USL Pro (where it has won a Championship and a regular season title). Rawlins set up shop in Florida with the hope that his venture would one day become a professional MLS team.
That day has finally come, with thousands on hand in Orlando on Tuesday for the official announcement. Supporters were decked out in violet clad jersey and waving Orlando City SC flags. That fan base, which is expected to be one of the best in the league come 2015, is probably delighted with Rawlin's and da Silva's intentions to build a competitive and star-studded roster ahead of 2015. Da Silva even commented that he's going to sign the "Brazilian David Beckham," rumored to be Real Madrid star Kaka.
A new team in a new era
There are at least two things that most teams are doing to be taken seriously in this decade of MLS. One is building an urban, soccer-only stadium. The other is signing high profile foreign players.
Orlando City SC will get the stadium and if da Silva's chatter about Kaka means anything, it's that the club's staff can be trusted with player acquisition.
That kind of commitment to soccer likely delighted MLS executives when Orlando was first proposed as a potential new market. But the best measure of a successful market is the strength of the fan base. Yes, the fact that so many gathered in Orlando to celebrate the birth of their professional soccer team is impressive. But worth tapping into is Orlando's diverse population, which includes the fourth-highest growing Latino population in America.
MLS has seen some expansion experiments go awry. Markets like Chivas USA have struggled to put a consistent product on the field and have created a brand name that caters only to Latinos, alienating them from other types of soccer fans. Toronto has a viable fan base, but are an administrative disaster having had six head coaches since 2009.
Da Silva and Rawlin's commitments appear to be in the right place. But even then there's the shadow of two previously failed MLS Florida markets, Miami and Tampa Bay, which Orlando City SC will have to overcome.
Back to Florida
Founded in 1995 and 1996, respectively, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were supposed to be staple franchises with rich futures for the newborn MLS. But in 2001, both teams folded due to a lack of financial resources and the league trying to operate both teams on a low budget.
There was, however, some success. The Mutiny made the playoffs every year. They had young players that would go on to cultivate American soccer in other cities nationwide. They signed Carlos Valderrama, the Colombian Messi of the '90s. Miami didn't have as exciting a roster, but they did make playoffs three out of years.
When Miami and Tampa Bay got cut, the league shrunk from 12 to 10 teams. But when expansion restarted in 2005 with the advent of Salt Lake City and Chivas, there was immediate talk of bringing a franchise back to Florida. The league has waited a decade to make that happen, and by no fault of its own. There needed to be a competent investor in place that could sell a viable plan to MLS, enter da Silva and Rawlins.
Not only do da Silva and Rawlins have the passion and fan base to create a successful franchise, but they also have examples to study. The breakthrough in city-wide support for new teams in Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver has helped MLS turn a corner. On a consistent basis, this trio of teams packs its stadium and showcases modern, exciting soccer in front of a knowledgeable and energetic crowd.
Orlando could follow the same exact model. All three of those teams have very little competition from other sports teams, giving them additional support from an entire city that's hungry to see a winning team. The Portland Timbers aren't second to the NBA Trail Blazers in Oregon, the Whitecaps draw high numbers to compete with the Vancouver Canucks in British Colombia, and Seattle Sounders tickets are just as hot, if not hotter, than entrance to a Mariners or Seahawks game.
Orlando has the same, wide-open market. The Orlando Magic of the NBA are the only professional team that the Lions will have to jostle with for attention.
A changing league
With the addition of Orlando, plus a second team in New York City, both of which will kick-off together in 2015, MLS is expected to make some changes.
The league will likely look into conference configuration, scheduling, and roster rules.
With 21 teams (the league says it plans to be at 24 by 2020) the United States has more professional franchises competing in its highest league than England, Italy, Germany, Spain, and France. That might deter MLS from going to a single table format, as is the case in most leagues around the world.
MLS could keep its conference structure, though one team, likely Houston, would have to move to the Western Conference. There's also another hypothesis that MLS will switch to a divisional system and divide itself by East, Midwest, and West.
Scheduling is logistical. Changing the configuration of the league's roster rules, which are dominated by a salary cap, is exciting.
Teams like Los Angeles, New York Red Bulls, Seattle, and Montreal seem to have no qualms about shelling out money for international superstars. New York City FC, who will be backed by the New York Yankees and Manchester City, will probably bring in some world renown players, too. Orlando City want the Brazilian-Beckham, an indication that they're all in for a rich roster as well.
Other MLS teams like the Revolution, Kansas City, and Real Salt Lake have succeeded relying on good foreign players--- not the Beckhams, Henrys, and Martins of the world. But MLS might be tempted to loosen up roster rules to encourage more of those aforementioned-type players coming to play in the U.S.
Under current rules, a team is permitted to have three designated players (players whose contracts and transfer fees do not count against the salary cap). The league might entertain allowing teams to have a fourth designated player, an act which would sit well with many of America's high-spending clubs.
Maintaining its individuality
There are tell-tale signs that the world's version of soccer is at America's doorstep. More soccer-only stadiums. More knowledgeable fans. More jersey sponsors. Better quality of play on the field. A national team whose players play on some of the world's best clubs. A league that grows stronger and more competitive every day.
And yet, MLS has managed to maintain some of its uniqueness. Whether it's keeping the post-season, or the pre-season drafts, or the summer-oriented schedule, or the Americanized franchise names like the "Chicago Fire" and "Houston Dynamo," MLS has taken steps to be its own entity.
With a growing league and demand among many of the nation's soccer fans to be more European, these traditions could change. But the key is that MLS, already deeply international by the fact that it's a successful soccer league on American soil (who knew?), is poised to one day be as competitive as the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga-- regardless of whether or not we call the game soccer or football.
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