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Orlando team counts on global visitors to spark interest

Orlando City SC president Phil Rawlins waves to his wife during a rally for a Major League Soccer official announcement for a expansion fran
Orlando City SC president Phil Rawlins waves to his wife during a rally for a Major League Soccer official announcement for a expansion fran

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A new Major League Soccer franchise in Orlando is banking on the droves of international visitors to this theme park capital to help the team succeed where other teams failed in Florida little more than a decade ago.

"This truly is a melting pot," said Orlando City Soccer Club president and owner Phil Rawlins on a media conference call on Wednesday.

The U.S. appetite for soccer also has changed markedly since 2002 when teams in Miami and Tampa were closed to cut the fledgling league's losses, Rawlins said.

"The tide is really rising for soccer across the U.S. We tapped into a great marketplace. The city itself is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It has a very young age. Soccer's cool. Soccer's hip."

The Orlando team will be one of four expansion sides planned by Major League Soccer through 2020.

One new franchise has already been approved for New York, a partnership between the owners of the New York Yankees baseball team and the owners of the British Premier League club Manchester City.

Earlier this month, British soccer icon David Beckham, who played for Manchester United, Real Madrid and the MLS club L.A. Galaxy, toured potential stadium sites in Miami for the second time in five months as he moved ahead with his plans to bring a MLS franchise to the city.

Rawlins compared Orlando's chances of success with the similar sized MLS communities of Portland and Kansas City, whose teams fared well.

Rawlins, who also is part-owner of the Stoke City in England, and team owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, a Brazilian, said they intended to tap their international connections to build the fan base and draw players.

The connections include Brazilian player Kaka, who recently appeared in a commercial for Da Silva. Brazilian Da Silva made his fortune founding what became an international chain of English language schools.

Asked about luring Kaka to Orlando, da Silva said: "Every team in the world would love to have Kaka...

"We have a plan to have a Brazilian soccer star internationally well known, and this is our priority. If it is Kaka or if it is another one, so this is our plan. We don't have anything signed with any players in Brazil and other countries," da Silva said.

Da Silva said he recently launched a Portugese-language Facebook page to promote the Orlando team in Brazil and, within eight weeks, logged 212,000 fans. Da Silva said many are captivated by his own rags-to-riches story.

"They read a Brazilian that's going from zero in Brazil, from the poverty, and now this Brazilian own a club in the Major League Soccer America," he said.

Florida's growing internationalism is an advantage to Orlando, where large pockets of Brazilians, part-time British citizens and other newcomers raised on soccer have taken root.

Miami on Saturday hosted a rematch of the Brazil and Honduras 2012 Olympic game, drawing 71,000 people, the largest soccer crowd in Florida history.

Orlando City Soccer's Lions, a three-year-old minor league team, will begin playing in the MLS in March 2015 with the start of the new season.

Rawlins said the club intends to go forward with its current head coach Adrian Heath, who Rawlins called "one of the best coaches in the country and responsible for our style of play and our philosophy which is a very exciting style of play."

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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