MLS’s New York Obsession Almost Cost Orlando City

All is well that ends well goes the saying. But it almost didn’t end well as Major League Soccer’s obsession with getting a second New York club almost cost the league the opportunity to elevate the most successful current lower division club to MLS.

In early May, when Major League Soccer was obsessed with placing a team in New York to counter the growing momentum of the New York Cosmos, an opportunity presented itself to get Orlando City’s project partially funded at the state level.

I spend a great deal of time in Tallahassee around the state capital and my wife works in the Legislature. Being the resident “soccer geek,” I was asked by multiple staffers and legislators what I thought of the Orlando City project and whether Major League Soccer would really come to Central Florida and whether it was worth it.

I was still employed at the North American Soccer League at the time, so for me to say anything publicly would have been a conflict, but I spoke in confidence to the staff and state legislators, I made it clear I felt MLS was worth it and would be a big economic boost for the region. But the legislators and staff I spoke to said they never heard from MLS at the time. The league never lobbied legislators, never contacted legislators, and never indicated if the stadium project was approved that MLS would come to Central Florida. Beyond what Orlando City’s impressive lobbying effort was presenting, there was never any indication given at the time from MLS regarding what the economic benefits of the project would be for the State of Florida, particular the Central Florida area.

Orlando City’s project died at the state level thanks to being tied into a bill that included unpopular funding for the Miami Dolphins stadium. House Speaker Will Weatherford had no desire to see the bill pass and he let it die at the end of the session on May 3.

Two weeks later, MLS announced the New York expansion franchise, while Orlando — which should have been the 20th MLS team given the impressive attendance, outstanding supporter culture and existing club infrastructure — was left to wait.

But when Don Garber announced in July that MLS would once again be expanding, Orlando was back on the table. From that point forward, MLS actively and aggressively courted local political support. The league did very well working with the club to build a community consensus for the project.

In the end when the votes were in doubt in Orange County, MLS came through with an effective personal lobbying effort. Orlando will justifiably be team 21 in Major League Soccer in 2015, but I still believe had MLS made even a basic effort six months ago, the last few days would not have been so dramatic.

When push came to shove, Major League Soccer came through and will have a great new market that has proven its strong level of support for the sport at the minor league level. They will also welcome two supporters groups in the Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm that will help grow the fan culture in the league. Congratulations to those sets of supporters who made Orlando City into what it is today and what it will be tomorrow.

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