Soccer primed to rise again in Florida

After nearly bringing the MLS to its knees 12 years ago, new teams in Orlando and Miami could change the state's fate

Orlando City, which has made a splash in the USL Pro League, will gets its chance in the MLS in 2015.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Just over a decade ago, Florida was Ground Zero for the near-collapse of Major League Soccer. During a humiliating contraction of the league before the start of the 2002 season, MLS axed two original franchises — the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion, which were seen as its weakest assets — in order to try to save the league.

It appears to have worked. Eventually, the signings of superstars David Beckham and Thierry Henry came along, as did the spectacle and scale of crowds in the Pacific Northwest — a region diametrically opposed to Florida in more than just geographical location.

Since then, Florida and its perennial problems with dealing with even existing major sports franchises, was seen as a permanent frontier too far for the league to return.

But times are changing.

Two weeks ago Orlando City, the USL Pro champions whose most recent championship game drew over 20,000 people, confirmed they would become the 21st MLS team in the 2015 season (after contraction, only 10 teams competed in the 2002 season). Perhaps just as significantly, Beckham is working on buying a team and moving it to Miami.

The prospect of the Florida soccer scene having two MLS teams once more, now looks more a matter of “when” not “if.”

Onward, Orlando

Since English owner Phil Rawlins moved his Austin Aztex team to Orlando in 2010, Orlando City has won two USL Pro titles in its three years in the league, as well as two regular season championships — all under Rawlin’s countryman Adrian Heath as head coach. They’ve built up a solid and vocal local following and have complemented their own play with other strategic programming, including several MLS preseason tournaments and international games, such as a recent USA vs. Brazil contest. This activity has aggressively targeted the attention of a city where the median age is a young 34 — lining up well with a sport whose demographic also skews young.

Rawlins, a director of English Premier League club Stoke City, had promised and has now delivered MLS soccer to Orlando within three to five years. Orlando City has already made an impression on MLS teams, having beaten Colorado Rapids and defending titleholders Sporting Kansas City to reach the quarterfinals of this year’s U.S. Open Cup.

“I don't know how (MLS) could say ‘no’ to Orlando if we win,” Dom Dwyer, a striker on loan to Orlando from Kansas City, said at the time.

As it turned out, Orlando didn’t win that particular trophy, but its claim proved irresistible anyway — the addition of wealthy investor Flávio Augusto da Silva earlier this year having helped ease something of an impasse that the club, the league and the state had briefly found themselves in. The league would not grant a franchise without a confirmed stadium, while the club and the local authorities could not agree on the correct proportions of the financing for a public-private deal to build one. But the presence of the moneyed Da Silva, who made his millions in a global language-school franchise, guaranteed the club’s share of the costs and gave legislators at the city, county and state levels the confidence to vote through the stadium proposal.

Could Brazilian star, Kaka, find his way to Orlando?
Scott Heavey/Getty Images

With that impediment out of the way, the MLS deal was done, and Orlando was swiftly confirmed as the 21st of the proposed 24 MLS teams to be in play before the end of the decade. The flamboyant Da Silva promptly took to the stage at the expansion announcement and dropped his heaviest hint yet that he is trying to convince Kaka, the former World Footballer of the Year who plays for AC Milan in the Italian league, to come to Orlando for the 2015 season. Kaka has been linked to the league before, but crucially the Brazilian’s need to contend for a 2014 World Cup place will be over by then, and Da Silva counts the player among his friends. Kaka’s name recognition would be optimal for the team and its new owner, who sees the potential as huge, perhaps with good reason — Orlando City’s Brazilian Facebook page gained 214,369 likes within just two months of being set up.

Welcome to Miami?

Negotiations in Miami are at a more complicated stage. Beckham, still tabloid gold despite his retirement, has been on several well-documented reconnaissance trips to the city in recent months, and taken a number of meetings with potential investors — including LeBron James and perhaps rather more significantly Marcelo Claure, the billionaire global wireless mogul who owns Brightstar. Beckham and Claure have toured a number of potential sites for a soccer-specific stadium, and have reportedly settled on a preferred downtown target near the Port of Miami.

David Beckham sits courtside watching LeBron James (right) and the Miami Heat.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Despite the apparent ambivalence of Beckham’s early years in the league, where European loans and England commitments tested the patience of his Los Angeles Galaxy club owner’s, the Englishman appears to be holding to his often-voiced commitment to grow the game in the U.S., and in exercising the option to buy an MLS franchise for $25 million. The recent New York franchise went for $100 million, and while that market was an expensive outlier, Beckham’s group should be buying a place at the table below market rate. That is, of course, provided he can get a deal done before his original option runs out on Dec. 31 (the league refused to comment on whether it is considering an extension). 

Should Beckham & Co. be able to pull a deal together, the possibility of two teams establishing a rivalry with each other, backed by South American billionaires, and perhaps fronted by marquee South American players, suggests the intriguing possibility of a new soccer front being opened up in Florida.

But can the state really support two such teams this time around?

Wary taxpayers

The fact that Orlando’s announcement video for the MLS deal focused at least as much on scenes of votes inside local government chambers as it did on sporting highlights probably encapsulates everything one needs to know about the current backdrop. In Miami, the bruising experience of the Florida Marlins baseball stadium is likely to color all public-private negotiations for decades to come.

The Marlins have become a symbol of everything that can go wrong in public-private arrangements, having saddled Miami-Dade taxpayers with a bill for a new stadium that will eventually reach an eye-watering $2.4 billion in repayments while selling off much of the team’s talent without replacing it. The team is now as mediocre as ever, and there is little on the horizon to inspire the promised economic success in its depressed Little Havana location.

Beckham has actually looked at the Marlins stadium as a possible venue for a Miami soccer team to play until its own stadium is built. The port site would involve Miami-Dade leasing the ground to Beckham’s consortium to build a stadium, but the emphasis would very much be on the private, rather than the public, side of any financing for the team.

Aside from those challenges, there’s the obvious issue of whether a city that already hosts the Marlins, the Dolphins and of course prospective downtown neighbors Miami Heat, could support even a team sprinkled with Beckham’s stardust.

In that respect Orlando City should have the advantage of only having the NBA’s Orlando Magic as major-league neighbors. Yet Orlando also knows the potential value of a viable rival in Miami. Da Silva described the prospect as “fantastic” and cited the success of the recent Brazil vs. Honduras game in the city that drew 72,000 fans, as evidence of Miami’s appetite for the game. 

And it’s that idea of Miami and Orlando as global hubs that MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in part, believes will make this version of MLS in Florida a success.

“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,” Garber said. “Soccer has truly become the universal language of the global community. (Since Tampa Bay and Miami folded) the sport has exploded … 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.”

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