Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announced last week during the MLS All Star Game that the league would be expanding to 24 teams by the year 2020. Who will these additional 4 franchises be? We reached out to a number of people in the know from prospective MLS cities and asked them, why their city? It's a series we're calling MLS2020. You can join in on the conversation on Twitter using #MLS2020. Next up, we talk to Adam Henckler from The Scoring Third about Orlando, Florida.
Total-MLS (TMLS): The league has released a number of criteria that they will base their expansion decision on. Let’s hit on each of the criteria. Committed and engaged ownership: We know Orlando City SC has great ownership and they are very committed to bringing MLS to Orlando. How important is it to already have an established ownership group in place and what has the ownership group done to ensure Orlando gets a MLS franchise?
Adam Henckler (AH): Shortly after the team moved to Orlando in late 2010 I had an opportunity to speak with team president Phil Rawlins. At that time, even with the relocation, scouting players, getting management in place and so on, his focus and commitment towards MLS was unwavering. I think that is the one common trait we have seen with recent MLS expansion club presidents/owners, a single focus on the prize which is gaining a new franchise. The road to MLS is filled with many potholes, that leader's ability to maneuver around the ruts and reach the destination is what separates the real franchises from the wannabes.
TMLS: A comprehensive stadium plan: Orlando seems to be the “leader in the clubhouse” for an expansion franchise with a stadium plan being one of the few remaining hurdles? What is the latest in Orlando’s quest to have a stadium built and what are some of the plans being discussed?
AH: Orlando City is in the final stages of securing funding for their stadium project with meetings ongoing this week with Orange County for $20M in hotel tax revenues. The stadium will be roughly 18,000 seats, covered sideline seating, grass pitch, club seats and suites. A vote on the final $20M for the project is expected in the next 30 days and assuming MLS awards Orlando a franchise before the end of 2013,
construction could begin as early as January 2014 with an open date of mid-2015.
TMLS: Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market: We’ve seen the support for OCSC, talk about the fans in Orlando and how their push for MLS has been instrumental in this expansion bid.
AH: Over 8,000 average attendance for home matches, traveling supporters who attend almost every away match, and strong social media presence. The supporters in Orlando are vital to the success of the club and to hopes of gaining an MLS franchise, and the club is fully aware of this fact. Although there are several supporter groups (The Ruckus, Iron Lion Firm, Space Coast Alliance, etc) they all work together to support the club and have been branded collectively under the title "Orlando Supporters United".
TMLS: Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents: What support does Orlando have in place from these parties?
AH: Orlando City's sponsors include some of the largest business in Florida and represent a diverse grouping of businesses similar to the structure of MLS clubs. USLPRO has utilized a mostly online streaming system for live matches, but all of the major television stations in Orlando have cameras and reporters at most of Orlando City's home matches. Being in a city with only one other professional sports franchise (Orlando Magic) the summer months are open for good, regular coverage of matches and other team news by the media.
TMLS: Geographic location: Everyone has discussed the fact that the southeast is without a MLS team. What makes Orlando a good location for expansion?
AH: Commissioner Garber stated at the MLS ASG last week that southeast expansion is the league's top priority. Beyond just the Southeast, moving MLS back into Florida isn't without some nervousness simply because of the Miami and Tampa franchises of the past. If you put a team in either of those cities media will always draw comparisons to the franchises that were folded by the league. Orlando is unique in that it has no baggage, a proven supporter base, and is centrally located to pull in fans from the east and west coast of the state.
TMLS: A strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club: With a successful USL Pro team already in place, how will Orlando continue this plan and make it successful in MLS?
AH: The first thing I would look at is the coach, and Adrian Heath has already proven he has what it takes to coach in MLS. He has been the regular recruiting target for the manager at other MLS clubs. He has been able to win with a variety of different players and talent, but still is not satisfied with the results. In addition to coaching, the club's Brazilian owner Flavio Augusto da Silva has stated repeatedly that he wants to bring Kaka or another big name designated player to the team when they start in MLS. A DP would help bring in more casual fans and help the club get exposure in other markets as well. It also goes largely unreported, but Orlando City's development academy has roughly 2,000 players and is one of the largest in the country. The ability to develop home grown talent within the organization is vital for any successful MLS franchise.
TMLS: Finally, why should Orlando be chosen for a MLS expansion franchise and what are the chances it does happen?
AH: After NYCFC was announced, a lot of die hard soccer supporters in America felt like the league had become too corporate, they went for the money grab. Orlando City is a chance to appease the millions of soccer fans in this country by going with a franchise that has proven itself on the field, in the stands, and in the community. The demographics and fan support have been drawing comparisons to Portland and I have to agree, while the cultures are a little different the passion is the same and MLS will clearly be a success in Central Florida. What are the chances of Orlando City getting a franchise? If stadium funding is approved in the next month I fully expect Orlando to be awarded the 21st franchise in MLS before the end of 2013.
We'd like to thank Adam for his time and if you have any comments or questions you can tweet us or The Scoring Third and use #MLS2020. You can also read more about Orlando's chances at expansion on The Scoring Third's site.
(image courtesy of Alex Schierholtz)