Good news has finally arrived for Orlando City Soccer Club in their quest for MLS expansion after city leaders unanimously approved funding for a new stadium. The Board of Commissioners met on Monday to discuss funding for a new soccer stadium set to be situated in downtown Orlando, and a successful vote leaves the franchise just one step away from securing their new home.
MLS promised Orlando an expansion place last year with the requirement that they build a soccer-specific stadium. The USL Pro club currently play in the Florida Citrus Bowl, a stadium designed for American football that seats 65,437 people. It has served as the home to several football teams in the past such as the Florida Blazers, Orlando Thunder, and most recently the Orlando Fantasy, in addition to hosting a number of NFL preseason games.
Soccer first arrived at the Citrus Bowl in 1994, when the stadium was chosen as one of nine venues for the FIFA World Cup and boasted an average attendance of 60,000 fans. Orlando was also announced as a host to both men’s and women’s soccer competitions in the 1996 Olympic Games. In 1998, the MLS All-Star game was held at the Citrus Bowl, and its most recent professional soccer match was a friendly between Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara and Deportivo Cali of Columbia. It was also announced on Monday that the stadium will host a match between the US Women’s National Team and Brazil on November 10.
Orlando City SC was founded on March 4, 2010 as a member of the USL Pro, America’s 15-team third tier. The franchise was later bought by Stoke City board member Phil Rawlins, and their first-ever squad was announced at the end of October. Rawlins’ goal was to bring MLS to the city of Orlando within the next 3-5 years, along with international matches. Former Stoke City, Everton, Burnley, and Manchester City midfielder Adrian Heath was later announced manager of Orlando City.
Nicknamed ‘The Lions’, Orlando began their first preseason with a series of games against MLS clubs, claiming a 1-0 victory over Philadelphia Union in their first ever match in existence. The club went on to lose 1-0 to FC Dallas in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, but managed a narrow win over Toronto FC. After losing a hard-fought battle against Swedish club BK Häcken, Orlando played five games against local colleges, winning all five. In July, Premier League sides Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United stopped by Orlando during their summer tours of the United States, with Bolton romping to a 3-1 win while Newcastle fell to the Lions with the score of 1-0.
Their debut match in the USL Pro was an away game against the Richmond Kickers, which the Lions lost 2-0. But despite the shaky start, the club finished their first regular season at the top of the table with 51 points from an impressive 15-6-3 record, winning the USL Pro Regular Season Title. In the playoffs, Orlando easily cruised to the USL Pro Championships against the Harrisburg City Islanders and were named champions after a penalty shootout sealed an emphatic victory.
Orlando’s second season saw the club top the USL Pro table yet again at 57 points, suffering just one loss throughout their entire campaign. Unfortunately, they were knocked out of the playoffs by Wilmington Hammerheads, the eventual runners-up. The Lions placed second in their third and most recent season but went on to win in the playoff finals, their second championship in just three seasons. The 20,889 fans that attended last month’s USL Pro Champinoship game set the minor league record for every sport in the United States.
Orlando City’s proposed 18,000-seat stadium will cost a reported $85 million, and Monday’s vote accounted to $20 million of the total cost. Fans of the club attended the event wearing purple to show their support for Orlando’s plans for a new stadium and MLS expansion, and were happy to hear that Mayor Buddy Dyer and the six Commissioners landed a 7-0 vote in their favor. The mayor was very supportive of the franchise and believed that an MLS club would benefit the city, saying:
“There’s the intangible of being a ‘Major League City’ and I think soccer will continue to be the major growth sport for the next decade or so. I think Orlando can become the franchise looked at from around the world for MLS.”
With $20 million of the funds covered, Orlando are now trying to secure the final $65 million that will give them the green light to start constructing a new stadium. This crucial vote will be taken out in just nine days on October 22, 2013, where Orange County Commissioners will decide the fate of Orlando City Soccer Club on their quest for finding a new home and achieving their overall goal of MLS expansion. After the vote last Monday, Orlando City President Phil Rawlins stated:
“This is obviously a very big step toward our goal of bringing MLS. I am delighted to have the City behind us so we can now focus on the second vote that is only two weeks away.”
If the plan is approved by Orange County later this month, the franchise will enter final talks with MLS over their long-awaited dreams of expansion. By the time the new stadium is set to open in 2015, Orlando City Soccer Club hope to be the newest expansion team of America’s top-level soccer league, with Major League Soccer planning to add four more clubs by 2020.