The ASN Interview

Orlando City Committed to Making Playoffs in 2015

ASN contributing editor Brian Sciaretta spoke with Orlando City SC president and founder Phil Rawlins about preparations for the 2015 MLS season, attracting U.S. national team players to Florida, and more.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 25, 2014
11:15 AM
TWO THOUSAND FIFTEENis shaping up to be a landmark year for Major League Soccer.

A new collective bargaining agreement should be in place, many teams will have USL clubs to foster young talent, the deadweight of Chivas USA is gone, San Jose is moving into a sparkling new stadium, and two new teams—New York City FC and Orlando City SC—will begin play.

Of all the changes above, Orlando City SC's arrival in the league has drawn the least amount of national headlines despite having Kaka under contract as the second former FIFA World Player of the Year to play in MLS. (Former MetroStar Lothar Matthaus was the first.)

Orlando City SC, the MLS franchise, grew out of a USL Pro team that has been operating under the same name since 2010. The team was successful in USL Pro, winning titles in 2011 and 2013 while being the runner-up in 2012. Along the way it produced several notable MLS players, including Dom Dwyer and C.J. Sapong.

Quietly, however, Orlando City is doing some positive things that many other recent expansion teams have failed to do. Its stadium deal is squared away and construction is underway. The club has sold 9,000 season tickets and the team’s core is set to take shape in the weeks and months ahead.

ASN’s Brian Sciaretta spoke at length with Orlando City SC’s president and founder, Phil Rawlins, about his vision for the club and the challenges that lie ahead. Here is a lightly edited version of Sciaretta's conversation with the Stoke, England, native.

BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: What are the next big steps for putting this team together? You have a lot of work between now and January.

PHIL RAWLINS: We have had a great head start and we’ve been in business for several years as a club and for the last four in Orlando. We have a lot of the pieces in place in the front office. Staff-wise, we’re up around 65 people in the front office. On the field, we’ve got about eight or nine people already. We’ve really focused up to this point on youth and what we believe is great potential and talent among our younger players. Hence, we have Tommy Redding, Tyler Turner, and Kevin Molino. We’ve balanced that with Kaka.

The next step is to really add some experience into that group with players who have MLS experience and know what it takes to win in this league. It’s a well-known secret that Tally Hall has signed with us and he’s the kind of player we’re looking for. He’s experienced but has a lot of playing time in front of him still. We’ll look to add a lot more of that type of quality ahead in the expansion draft.

ASN: What's going to be different about Orlando City? What's going to distinguish it from the rest of the league? Is there any kind of identity you want Orlando City to have?

RAWLINS: First of all, we know ourselves. We’ve been around for a while now. We have a club and a very strong culture and we have a way of playing. We have our own brand, culture, and image which we will bring to the league. When you think about culture, it is very much a family club. We are literally the epitome of a family. We work together on the field and off the field. Adrian has a great group of players that love playing for him and love the club. Off the field, we have a great family atmosphere.

People don’t expect a lot from Orlando. It’s all about New York City FC right now. That’s great. Let’s keep the spotlight there for a while and let us just creep up because we know what we’re good at. We know how good we are. We've come to the league not just to make up the numbers, but to compete and win. So we want to make sure that is the case.

We have a very distinct style of play. We play a very possession-oriented game. We play a 4-2-3-1 formation. We like to attack. We like to score goals and that has been proven with our record in the minor leagues. In the first 100 professional games for the club, we have the best record in the first 100 years of the U.S. Soccer Federation. We want to keep that going.

Off the field we want to make this a major, major sports franchise—not just in Florida but also worldwide. We have a very unique marketplace. Orlando is one of the most visited cities in the world. This year we will have 60 million visitors and the vast majority of them are coming from soccer-loving countries. There is no reason why we shouldn’t achieve our goals and why we shouldn’t fill the stands on a weekly basis.

ASN: I know you said Orlando has a lot of visitors but isn’t that a problem because it is a transient city with so many people not living there or originating from elsewhere? Also, Florida itself has had two MLS teams fail. In addition, while support for college athletics is strong in Florida, professional sports as a whole have struggled in the state even including the country’s two major sports like MLB and NFL. What do you see among the permanent residents of Orlando that bodes well for an MLS team?

RAWLINS: Honestly, it’s a common misconception among a lot of people. If you look at the demographics of the city, we have a great city with 2.2 million people. We’re the 18th biggest television market in the country. The average age in the community, which will surprise people, is 34. So this is a very young and vibrant city. We have the second biggest college campus in the country on our doorstep with 55,000 students at the University of Central Florida. We have a very young and vibrant and passionate population. We’re one of the fastest growing cities for our size in the country. The young demographic is perfect for MLS. We’re very multicultural. We have many people who have moved here from various parts of the world and various parts of the country who all love soccer.

That has been demonstrated clearly in our season ticket sales. We’re now up around 9,000 season tickets sales. I think today if you inserted us into the league table of season ticket sales in MLS, we’d already be in the top third. Our goal is to get to 14,000 season tickets and we have every reason to believe we will do that. Right now we are tracking just ahead of Portland in terms of season tickets sales at the same time as when they were heading into MLS. So we feel very, very confident not only with the community support here but also the corporate support to make this a big success in MLS.

ASN: Recent additions to MLS have made major headlines with their various associations, sometimes seen as using the league to build their “brand.” It sort of started with the Red Bull corporation in New York and the extension of the Chivas brand. NYCFC has the backing of Manchester City and the Yankees. David Beckham is trying to launch a high-profile team in MLS. The new Los Angeles team has a star-studded ownership group. Is Orlando City taking a different approach?

RAWLINS: I do believe we’re different. We’re not a big overseas company that is coming into the marketplace. We are a community-based club first and foremost. Our fans are the the core of the club and we’ve built up a big fanbase over the least four years. We have a soccer loving city. During the World Cup, Orlando’s TV ratings were fifth in the country. So we were right up there with major, major cities. I think the sport here in Orlando is nothing but bright and exciting.

ASN: Orlando’s major splash by way of headlines came when it signed Kaka to a huge contract. We’ve seen some high-profile stars succeed tremendously in MLS and we’ve seen others fail. What lead you to believe that Kaka was right for this league?

RAWLINS: In the case of Kaka, we knew the player and the individual very well. One of my business partners has worked with him for the last 12 years. The major owner of the club has worked with him for the past three years and knows him very well. So we have good relationships with him personally. This wasn’t really a case of us going out for a player. It was more a case of we knew the background of the player, we know what he’ll bring to the franchise, we know about him as an individual, we know about him as a character, and we know about his quality both on and off the field. I think he will be nothing but an outstanding success.

In terms of his role in the league, I think it’s fair to say that he’s the biggest player the league has ever brought in. If you look at his track record in what he’s won and what he’s achieved, there’s nobody greater who has ever really come to MLS. He’s a perfect fit for us as a designated player.

ASN: What are your thoughts about U.S. national team players coming back to the league while still in their prime? That has been the dominant story in the league for the past year with Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley making major deals to return to MLS. Is that something you see Orlando eager to do?

RAWLINS: With regards to the U.S. national team players coming back to the league, that is something I am delighted to see happening. I think the whole league is delighted to see it happening. I think there will be a number of players like that who will return. I think the league is definitely getting stronger. It’s getting to a higher quality and I know through my travels around the world that everyone in the game is talking about MLS and soccer in America right now—what it can become and what the opportunities are. I think you’ll see more and more players like Dempsey and Michael Bradley returning to the States to play in MLS as it grows in stature.

ASN: When Don Garber lashed out at Jurgen Klinsmann, you were quick to support the commissioner on Twitter. What were your reasons for doing so?

RAWLINS: At the end of the day, one of the things we have to do is win over what I call the “Eurosnobs.” Soccer in this country is growing and it’s doing well. It’s progressing and it has a fantastic base to grow upon. It’s nothing but upside right now. Is it where it can be or has it reached its potential? No, far from it. It’s got great potential to go. But we don’t get there by ignoring it or turning our backs on it. We only get there by digging in, working for it, and developing it. I think MLS has done a tremendous job over the last 20 years of building a first-class league.

ASN: Are you worried about a rift between MLS and the U.S. national team?

RAWLINS: No. Not at all. I think at the end of the day you have to come together and work together. There’s always a healthy tension between any national team and the primary league in that country. You see it all around the world, to be honest. Healthy tension is not always a bad thing. What people have to do is come together and work for the betterment of the game in this country. I think we’ll see that happen.

I was disappointed in Jurgen’s comments simply because I don’t think it’s absolutely true that you need to go abroad to get the education you need in the game. There are a lot of players who have gone abroad and it hasn’t benefited them. I think the more we can keep players here and the more we can build the league, the better the quality gets all around, and the better the national team gets. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.

ASN: What kind of talent do you see right now in the central Florida market and what are your plans for Orlando City in developing this talent at the youth level?

RAWLINS: We have established a youth organization with two-and-a-half thousand kids—both boys and girls—playing in it right now. We have got the top elite level for both boys and girls with the developmental academy teams. Our boys academy is just going into its third year. It’s been very successful.

The future for our organization is very, very bright. The talent is very clearly here in central Florida as you can see by the likes of Tommy Redding, Dax McCarty, Graham Zusi, and all the other players that have come out of here. The talent is here and we are committed to developing it. I think we’ll see a lot more Tommy Reddings coming through our system and donning the purple shirt. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

ASN: I know Adrian Heath has strong ties to Orlando’s program but when you look at the current MLS landscape, the most successful coaches have MLS playing experience or strong ties to the league. What was the decision process to hire him as coach?

RAWLINS: For us, honestly, there was never a decision about it. It was a given. I think we’ve had one of the best coaches in the country and I’ve thought that for a long time. Adrian is vastly experienced. I think he’s going into his 38th consecutive preseason. He’s been involved in the professional game since he was 16 years of age. He’s a UEFA pro licensed coach. He was a successful head coach and assistant coach in the UK. He’s been extremely successful since he’s come over here.

He has a particular philosophy and it’s a philosophy that we’ve agreed that we are going to build the club around and develop around. We have a distinct style of play that he’s bought into. For us as a club, there was never a decision as to whether it was going to be Adrian or anybody else. Adrian is the leader of the club on the field and hopefully will continue to be for the very long term.

ASN: So you're not concerned about about his lack of MLS experience?

RAWLINS: Adrian is a very fast study. He’s been here for seven years working everything from coaching the PDL team to USL Pro and now into MLS. He’s certainly qualified to do it. He’s knows all about MLS, up and down. He’s just a massive studier and he loves knowledge about the game and in sports in general. He has learned an awful lot in his seven years here.

We’ve made a few mistakes along the way. We didn’t start out in the right way. We’ve had to decide on a few things quickly as we’ve learned and as he’s learned. We’ve put people around him who know the college game. Our general manager, Paul McDonough, is hugely experienced. We’ve got coaches around him who have college, USL Pro, and MLS experience. We’ve hired Mark Watson who has MLS assistant and head coaching experience. I’ve think we’ve got a great team and we have no doubts heading into the new season.

ASN: The league needs to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the players, and it could be contentious. Might this have a negative impact on your ability to build a team?

RAWLINS: The truth of the matter, if I’m honest with you, we’d love to not be coming in during a year when there’s going to be a collective bargaining agreement negotiation. You’re right. It does put us on a back foot when you don’t know the outcome of that CBA is going to be. But honestly, we are where we are.

The one thing about it is we are very pragmatic and we are very practical. We get on with things. I can’t change the circumstances about when we enter the league. I do wish they were slightly different but that isn’t the case and we’ve got what we’ve got. What we have to do is be prepared as we can be and make the best the best of the circumstances and be ready for March 15. We’ll be ready.

ASN: Expansion teams in the United States tend to struggle in their first year. What can an Orlando SC team realistically expect from the team in its debut season?

RAWLINS: Our goal and our aim in the first year is to get into the playoffs. We know that is not going to be easy. Nobody here is underestimating the league and that is the very last thing we would do. We have a lot of respect for it and the coaches, players, and teams in it. But we’ve come to compete and not to make up numbers. We’ve been used to winning. We’ve got a culture of winning and we want to continue that culture.

ASN: I know you can’t comment on specific transfers, but you certainly stirred the pot when you tweeted to Jozy Altidore, wishing him a happy birthday and reminding him how nice the weather is in Florida....

RAWLINS: [Laughter] Sometimes that stuff is just fun. You have to have fun.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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