Orlando might not have David Beckham, but it has a stadium plan and it beat Miami to the punch for a Major League Soccer franchise. League commissioner Don Garber seems hopeful that by 2017 or 2018, Orlando City SC will have a rival in Miami.
MLS confirmed last Tuesday that Orlando City, a very successful minor-league team from the USL-Pro League, was named an MLS franchise and will begin play in 2015. Thousands of fans dressed in the team’s traditional purple showed up to celebrate the announcement. An $84million, 18,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium, half-funded by team ownership, will be built two blocks off Church Street in the city’s vibrant downtown entertainment district.
Construction is set to begin in spring 2014 and the stadium is scheduled to open in summer 2015. Orlando City will start its inaugural MLS season at the Florida Citrus Bowl. The new stadium — in the heart of downtown and accessible by public transportation — is the model MLS is looking for from future expansion teams, including Miami.
Garber visited Miami last week and said he is pleased with the progress Beckham and his management group have made.
“I was in Miami [last] Friday and Saturday and met with the mayor during that meeting. There is a lot of momentum in that city,” Garber told the Orlando Sentinel.
“[Beckham has] been out meeting with partners, a couple of celebrity partners. The ownership group is coming together. They have been working to find a location for a soccer-specific stadium. If those pieces come together the way we all hope they will, then we could have a team in the next number of years in Miami, but there is still a lot of work to do on all those fronts.”
Beckham, the soccer and fashion icon, retired from MLS in April. As part of his original contract with the league, he was offered the option to become a franchise owner for a discounted price of $25million. Orlando City, by comparison, reportedly cost its owners $70million. Beckham has a Dec.31 deadline to decide whether to exercise the option, though it is quite possible he could seek an extension and the league is eager to work with him.
“This is the beginning for us in Florida,” Garber told the Orlando City SC fans at their franchise announcement. “We hope to have a couple rivals for you that might be across the state and perhaps a couple hundred miles downstate.”
Orlando SC drew an average of 8,100 fans for its games this season, and 12,700 for the playoffs. The team is owned by Brazilian Flavio Augusto da Silva and Phil Rawlins of Great Britain, who is part-owner of English club Stoke City. There has been talk da Silva will try to sign former Brazilian World Cup star Kaká, who is a close friend and frequent visitor to Central Florida. Kaká’s contract with AC Milan expires in 2015.
“We’ve had discussions with Kaká,” Rawlins told MLS.com. “He’s very well known to the organization. We’ll have to see what the next two years bring for him with the World Cup and AC Milan, but if he wants to come here, he’d be very, very welcome. I know he loves Central Florida, his family loves it. We’ll see.”
Added da Silva: “I believe that every team would like to have Kaká in their team, of course, Orlando City as well. But I cannot say Kaká because Kaká now is playing very well in Milan. Kaká is a great friend of mine. We already work together with my company in Brazil. But why not? The only thing I can say right now is that we’re going to bring someone very, very special.”
Da Silva said his team already is marketing itself in Brazil with a Portuguese Orlando City SC Facebook page that has 212,000 followers.
“Brazil could be a very, very important market for MLS,” he said by phone last week. “This team, with a Brazilian owner, would be a way to expand to the Brazilian market.”
Rawlins and da Silva would welcome a Miami MLS team, saying it could develop into the type of regional rivalry shared by the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers in the Pacific Northwest.
“For us, to have an MLS team in Miami would be fantastic,” da Silva said. “It’s a great soccer market. Miami got [around] 72,000 people to watch Brazil and Honduras last week. It has great potential to be a very good market for MLS. I hope the Beckham deal happens, and I expect it will.”
Florida had two MLS teams in the late 1990s — the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny — but both folded in 2001. Garber is optimistic the state is more ready now to support the league.
“It's a different era for the sport,” he said. “Orlando City is more successful by a long shot than the MLS teams in Miami and Tampa were 10 years ago. There's been a dramatic shift in the demographics in our country and the global connections that our people have, our citizens have with the rest of the world.
“Soccer has truly become the universal language of the global community. The sport has exploded, Major League Soccer had grown dramatically. We have 10 more teams than we had in the last 10 years. … Both Tampa and Miami didn't have soccer-specific buildings. So many things have happened between then and now, that we are without doubt assured a successful situation.”
• World Cup field: The 2014 World Cup field is complete, and the draw is set for Dec. 6. The 32 teams that will compete in Brazil are Spain, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Bosnia, Croatia, Russia, France, the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, Japan, Iran, South Korea, Australia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon.