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Major League Soccer

Orlando City gets commitment for public funds, nears getting MLS expansion franchise.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Wednesday, October 23, 2013) -- Orlando City (Fla.) SC is one step closer to joining Major League Soccer as an expansion franchise after the Orange County Commissioners voted last night to use $20 million in revenue from county tourist taxes to help fund the construction of a new 18,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium in downtown Orlando.

This $20 million is the last piece of the financing package that completes the public funding necessary for the new $84-million facility.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Orlando City had previously pledged another $20 million, while other surrounding jurisdictions, including Seminole County, committed another $2 million.

The Sentinel further wrote that the team would kick in $30 million toward construction and pay $675,000 a year for the next 25 years. With the commitment of those payments, Orlando would provide an additional $10 million that could be used for the construction.

The proposed stadium would be scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2015 with the club starting the season at the Orlando Citrus Bowl, which has been home to the third-division USL Pro league Orlando City Lions. The Citrus Bowl, a vast stadium, was considered too big and not suitable for MLS.

On Monday, ahead of the vote which ended 5-2 in favor of funding the stadium, MLS president Mark Abbott pledged that Orlando City SC would be awarded the next franchise if final stadium funding was approved. That statement on the part of MLS was necessary before the County Commission would approve the $20 million.

"We thank the Orange County and City of Orlando Board of Commissioners for their support to build a soccer-specific stadium in downtown Orlando," MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbot said in a written statement,. "We also would like to thank (Orlando City FC) for their passion and commitment to bring a Major League Soccer team to Orlando. We look forward to working with the Orlando City SC ownership group to finalize an expansion agreement."

According to Orlando City SC owner and president Phil Rawlins, now that the stadium funding package is assured, the club and MLS will begin work on the documents finalizing the club's entrance to the league. He estimated that it will take about 30 days and the club will join MLS, possibly as soon as the 2015 season.

MLS, which started with 10 teams in 1996, now has 19 with New York FC ready to join the league as a 20th franchise in 2015. MLS has announced an intention to expand to 24 teams by 2020.

The Orlando City Lions came into existence in 2010 when Rawlins moved his team from Austin, Tex., to Orlando. The team won the 2011 and 2013 USL Pro championships. In between the title runs, Rawlins began to very publicly court MLS and make a case that his team should added to the league as an expansion club.

That bid received a major boost when Brazilian Flavio Augusto da Silva came into the team's investor group and became its majority owner. Rawlins continues to be a part of the ownership group.

Da Silva, started a company, Wise Up, as a young man to teach English to Brazilians. Eighteen years later, the company operates over 400 schools in five countries -- Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, China and the United States. Silva recently sold the company, reportedly for several million dollars and announced he was turning his attention to his true passion, soccer.

Orlando would be the first of four additional expansion teams to which MLS committed earlier this year. Another widely discussed expansion location is Miami, Fla., where former MLS superstar David Beckham is trying to raise the necessary funds to make a new franchise viable. There has been talk that Bolivian wireless billionaire Marcelo Claure is ready to join his bid.

Beckham might now have some competition. According to media reports out of England, a London-based investment group, fronted by Italian financier Alessandro Butini, says it wants a Miami club. These reports say he has hired the University of Miami's architecture school to design a new stadium and explore downtown sites. The group already has created a web site and designed a possible set of uniforms.

If this new group is for real and has the money to build a soccer-specific stadium, it might have a leg up on Beckham, who reportedly is looking at Sun Life Stadium, home of the National Football League's Miami Dolphins, as well as potentially the venue of a local university. The University of Miami also plays at Sun Life.

Part of the contract that lured Beckham from Spain's Real Madrid to MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy was an option that would give the former England national-team captain a substantial discount on an expansion fee. That option reportedly expires at the end of this year.


Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correpondent.

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