Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Orlando breaks ground on $110M Major League Soccer stadium

On the right track: While Miami dithers, Orlando fans can expect a 20,000-seat soccer stadium to be ready for the 2016 MLS season.
On the right track: While Miami dithers, Orlando fans can expect a 20,000-seat soccer stadium to be ready for the 2016 MLS season. Orlando Sentinel

While South Florida politicians balk and soccer fans wait for David Beckham’s next move in his quest to bring Major League Soccer to Miami, the new MLS franchise in Orlando broke ground on its $110 million stadium Thursday to much fanfare.

Several thousand purple-clad Orlando City SC fans marched down Church Street on Thursday afternoon, chanted team songs, set off smoke bombs and then roared when the shovels hit the dirt on the site of the 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium, which is due to be ready for the 2016 season. The team will play at the Citrus Bowl for its inaugural season in 2015.

Orlando City SC has sold 8,000 season tickets, and already signed seven players, including Brazilian star Kaka. Another big-name international is expected to be announced in the coming months.

Flavio Augusto da Silva, the Brazilian owner of the Orlando franchise, was in Miami on Friday, doing a media tour to promote his team. He gushed about the club’s passionate fan base, its 17-field training facility, its 800,000 Facebook followers (100,000 in the U.S., 700,000 in Brazil), and its plan to become every Brazilian fan’s second-favorite team.

“Every Brazilian needs to come to Orlando to see Mickey Mouse and Kaka,’’ da Silva said, smiling. “Brazilians love Orlando. They love Mickey Mouse and the outlet malls, so it makes sense to have a professional soccer team here they can support. We got political support for the project because we are going to bring more tourism to Orlando, especially from Brazil. We are hoping for 15,000 season tickets by the start of the season.’’

The Orlando fan base was largely built-in from the club’s early stages as a third-division USL team in Austin, Texas. Phil Rawlins, a Brit who owned Stoke City in England, founded the Austin Aztecs in 2007 and moved the team to Orlando in 2010. The team drew 8,000 fans during the regular season, and a crowd of 20,000 showed up at the Citrus Bowl for Orlando City’s 2013 USL championship match.

“I came along at the right moment, when the Orlando team was ready to move up to MLS,’’ da Silva said. “It was the perfect situation.’’

He has been watching the Miami situation closely, and remains hopeful Beckham and his group will find a suitable stadium site.

“We were three years ahead of them,’’ da Silva said. “It takes time. [Beckham] doesn’t have any history here. We had a USL team building a strong fan base. Beckham is very committed to bringing a team to Miami, and I think he will, but maybe not until 2017 or 2018. It would be fantastic for us to have a Beckham team here. It would be a natural rivalry, and Beckham is a star and would call attention to MLS in this region from all over the world.’’

Da Silva believes with time, and ever-growing television contracts, that MLS will be able to attract top players in their prime. U.S. national coach Jurgen Klinsmann angered MLS commissioner Don Garber earlier this week when he said Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey would have a harder time staying in form after leaving European clubs for MLS clubs. Bradley left Roma for Toronto, and Dempsey left Tottenham Hotspur for Seattle.

“It’s going to be very difficult for them to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It’s just reality. It’s just being honest,” Klinsmann said. “I totally get it. It’s a huge financial opportunity [signing big MLS contracts] and there were other elements. But making that step means you’re not in the same competitive environment as you were before.”

Garber called the comments “disappointing, personally infuriating … frustrating as hell.’’ He said Klinsmann had gone off-message, that he should embrace the same long-range vision as league officials and refrain from publicly criticizing the league and its players.

“They’re both right,’’ da Silva said. “Klinsmann has a short-term vision because he needs to win now and at the next World Cup. Garber has a long-term vision.’’

Da Silva firmly believes the time will come when top U.S. players who choose to stay in MLS will be competing against elite players from Europe and South America who will also be making millions in America. The time, he predicts, is the year 2022. “I think that will be the year for MLS. We have to be patient.’’

▪ Fafa honored: Fort Lauderdale Strikers forward Fafa Picault last week was named NASL Player of the Week after scoring three goals in two road games to help the Strikers move into a playoff spot.

“It feels good obviously, but even more important was to get seven points in the last three games,” Picault said. “Hopefully we keep it going and get through to The Championship. Right now, team chemistry is good, guys are happy, and we all have one thing in our mind. On and off the field, all I’ve been thinking about is getting to the postseason.”

Who’s Leading

MLS: East – DC (55), New England (52), Kansas City (49). West – Seattle and LA (60), Salt Lake (52)

NASL: Minnesota (33), San Antonio (29), Edmonton (23), Fort Lauderdale (22), New York (21)

English Premier League: Chelsea (22), Manchester City (17), Southampton (16), West Ham (13)

French Ligue 1: Marseille (22), PSG (18), Bordeaux and St. Etienne (17), Nantes (16)

Serie A: Juventus (19), Roma (18), Sampdoria (14), Udinese (13), Milan and Verona (11)

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (20), Monchengladbach (16), Mainz and Wolfsburg (14), Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen (13)

La Liga: Barcelona (19), Real Madrid (18), Valencia (17), Sevilla (16), Atletico Madrid(14)

On the tube

Sunday: Queens Park Rangers vs. Liverpool (8:30a.m., NBCSN); Hellas Verona vs. Mimlan (9a.m., BeInSport USA); Bordeaux vs. Caen (11a.m., BeINSport USA); Stoke vs. Swansea City (11a.m., NBCSN); Pumas UNAM vs. Pachuca (1p.m., Univision); Inter vs. Napoli (2:45p.m., BeINSport USA); New York vs. Columbus (3p.m., Univision Deportes); LA vs. Seattle (8:15p.m., ESPN2)