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MLS expansion candidate has a British flavour

If talk of MLS expansion hopefuls Orlando City is in English, it is certainly not a surprise. No, really. The true language of Her Majesty the Queen is native to both the ownership and many of the players of the United Soccer League Pro champions. Even the Florida team's crest is reminiscent of England’s Three Lions emblem.

Club president Phil Rawlins and his wife Kay both have strong connections to the Premier League’s Stoke City. Phil is a director and owner at the club, while his wife has been a season-ticket holder most of her life. Share owners John Bonner and Tony Sutton are die-hard supporters of two-time European champions Nottingham Forest while Brendon Flood serves on the board of directors at Burnley.

Central Florida is a favourite destination of English ex-patriots and tourists with regular flights at two nearby airports several times a week. Orlando is also home to a slew of British newspapers, shops and pubs. Several famous footballers have homes in Florida including Rodney Marsh, Mo Johnston and Wayne Rooney.

Currently, Orlando City have maintained their impressive record against Major League Soccer's top club during this spring’s pre-season. They are undefeated having drawn three games: 1-1 against Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union, and a 2-2 draw with Toronto at the Disney Pro Classic.

Both Seattle and Toronto will play in the quarter-finals of the Concacaf Champions League next week. Toronto are the presiding Canadian champions.

World Cup venue 

While averaging 5,265 fans in the third tier of American professional soccer last year, Orlando City plays its home matches at the 65,000-capacity Citrus Bowl - once venue for the 1994 FIFA World Cup and 1996 Olympics Soccer.

A requisite for MLS expansion in the last few years has been a soccer specific stadium which is what Phil Rawlins is hoping to add to the club’s assets. Orlando was one of only two venues from the 1994 World Cup that did not get a franchise in the area when MLS began in 1996. Though Orlando were in the new league's plans as late as 1998 when the Citrus Bowl hosted the annual MLS All-Star Game.

As Director of Community Relations, Kay Rawlins has done all the right things to make the club part of the neighbourhood. The USL club moved to Orlando after a frustrating engagement in Austin, Texas, where it was known as the Aztex, there. Located in the tourist mecca of Florida, the club already has Legoland as one of its sponsors.

Topping the regular season table and winning the USL Pro Championship play-offs in 2011 proves that Lions' coach Adrian Heath can put a good product on the field. The former England u-21 player made over 500 appearances for Everton, Stoke City and Manchester City including winning two league titles, an FA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup with the Toffees.

For the upcoming campaign Heath has added some English family connections with John Rooney, the younger brother of Manchester United and England star Wayne Rooney. Former Stoke City players Anthony Pulis and James O'Connor also join the Lions' midfield.

The former is the son of the current Stoke manager Tony Pulis. To complete the running joke of the team being ‘sons and brothers’, Dustin McCarthy, younger brother of MLS player Dax McCarthy has also broken into the squad.

Youth development 

Make no mistake however, this nepotism is not for publicity as coach Heath has made the most of developing these younger players. The McCarthy brothers are products of the Orlando area youth soccer system. Earlier in the year, Phil Rawlins was pleased to announce the merging of the area's strongest youth programs into the club's progressions. It is these smaller acquisitions that will build the club into a long term fixture in Florida and prepare it for financial stability in professional soccer.

Last summer, the Lions lost 3-1 to Bolton Wanderers a day before a league match and then defeated Newcastle United 1-0 in front of 11,000 fans a week later. The performance prompted United Manager Alan Pardew to say they "would be foolish not to look at the talent Orlando is producing".

Having both the passion and the business acumen for soccer is a necessity to survive in American soccer. Rawlins and company seem to have both. It is the minimum requirement for making it to Major League Soccer.

The approach of the most recent expansion clubs Montreal, Vancouver and Philadelphia has been quite different. While the two Canadian clubs had existed for several seasons in the lower leagues with championship success, the Philadelphia Union began with just a supporters’ group to draw the attention of MLS.

The Orlando club already have two well-established supporters groups in ‘Iron Lion Firm’ and ‘The Ruckus’. The club is setting its roots in several areas with a vision of longevity similar to that of its English counterparts.The talent pool extends to a good crop of Americans as well as the Caribbean with Haiti, Trinidad and Jamaica represented.

Orlando City may have a combination of assets to offer MLS Commissioner Don Garber who meets with town officials as well as fans in Orlando next week. They hope that MLS will support their target for expansion by 2014. One thing is certain: Orlando has a strong soccer legacy - both English and domestic - from which to build upon.

By Chuck Zsolnai, H.D.

Chuck Zsolnai is the Director of the International Soccer Archives. He has covered football for over 20 years including 7 World Cups.


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