Orlando City are making plans to be the next big thing in U.S. soccer. The Florida franchise, who compete in the USL Pro league, have paid $4 million for land on which they reportedly intend to build a $110 million stadium (via Orlando Sentinel).
They don't have planning permission and they don't have an official invite to become an MLS expansion team yet, but we can only assume both are believed sure-fire certainties by the club's owners—led by president Phil Rawlins, the ex-pat Englishman who is also a director at Premier League club Stoke City, and bolstered by a "significant investment" this month from Brazilian businessman Flavio Augusto da Silva.
"Orlando believes in MLS," reads the slogan on a campaign website the club have recently launched, inviting fans to sign a petition backing their proposed elevation to the top tier of U.S. soccer. Add your support and you're advocating the following call to arms:
I believe in MLS in Orlando! I want to give my support to Orlando City SC in their bid to bring a second major league franchise to Orlando, and urge the governments at City, County and State level to do everything within their power to help make this happen.
Orlando City currently play at the Florida Citrus Bowl, but that venue is not deemed suitable to meet MLS requirements. Instead, an "18,000-25,000 seat stadium" with covered stands is proposed in an "urban, downtown location," the total cost of which is estimated at $110 million.
Land purchased in Parramore, Orlando, appears to fit that description perfectly. It would locate the stadium close to the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic basketball team, and comes with the selling point of bringing 890 construction jobs to the area.
Last March, MLS commissioner Don Garber visited Orlando's official pub and took part in a rowdy town-hall style meeting concerning the club's aspirations for expansion. "Garber we ready," was the message unveiled by fans, and Garber emerged saying the franchise were but a new stadium away from being an obvious choice.
Said Garber in March 2012, as per MLSsoccer.com:
No. 1 in any expansion process is ownership and we have that in place. No. 2 is the right market that will support it and, No. 3 is the facility. I think we have a good market here, the right ownership group and we haven’t begun the process on the facility. Until we’re able to get further on that, it’ll just force us to continue to work harder on the last piece of the puzzle.
MLS currently has 19 franchises and is seeking a 20th. Talk has been rife of a second team in the New York area (as a point of record, the Red Bulls actually play in New Jersey), with the reformed Cosmos the most obvious candidatem, but nothing is imminent and the Cosmos are barely a team yet, let alone a viable MLS proposition.
There is currently no MLS franchise in the southeastern United States. The Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny both left departed in 2001 and left soccer fans in the area needing to travel huge distances to Washington D.C. or Houston to get a taste of MLS action.
That could be about to change.
The Orlando franchise was only formed in 2010, but have already become established. Their average crowd in the NASL was up towards 7,000 for the 2012 season and the team became USL Pro champions at their first attempt in 2011. Last season they were beaten by the Wilmington Hammerheads after reaching the playoffs.
Is a MLS franchise in Orlando a good idea?
Orlando City's campaign website goes big on the economic benefits that would come with MLS expansion. An estimated "$1.2 billion" boost to the local economy is projected over 30 years, along with 250 long-term jobs and a chance to grow awareness of the area "nationally and internationally."
They also do a great selling job on soccer itself, backing up claims of the sport's continuing growth in the U.S as follows:
- No. 1 participation sport in the U.S.
- No. 3 most attended sport
- No. 2 favorite professional sport among those aged 12-24
- No. 1 favorite professional sport among Hispanics
It's a convincing argument; one that will have Floridian soccer fans extremely excited and one they can get behind by signing the petition.
Providing their new stadium gets the go-ahead, it seems very much like MLS is set to join NBA and Disney World as a major attraction in Orlando.