USL PRO Feature
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
It’s been almost four years to the day since Philip Rawlins announced the establishment of Orlando City SC, and the club’s intention to become part of Major League Soccer.
A year ago, that goal was achieved, with the Lions set to join New York City FC in MLS for the 2015 season. In the four seasons between, the Lions have left their mark on USL PRO.
The numbers speak for themselves. Orlando City claimed three regular-season titles and two league championships. The club has earned 15 league awards, 12 First-Team All-League selections and another seven Second-Team picks.
Despite all of that, though, there has been one thing that has meant more to Rawlins than anything that the club has accomplished on the field.
“The most gratifying part for me has been to see the way that people have taken this team to their hearts,” he said recently. “It’s part of their lives, it’s part of their community now, it’s part of their culture, it’s part of what they do week-in and week-out, and we’ve been so very relevant to so many people in their lives - that’s been the most gratifying part, to see that.
“The baby that you’ve created has been adopted by everybody else as their own favorite child. That’s a lot of fun, and it’s a reason why it’s so rewarding.”
That the team found such success from the start certainly didn’t hurt the Lions’ efforts off the field, of course. At the heart of that has been head coach Adrian Heath, whose determination to get the best from his players has been evident since his arrival. One of the players that may have benefitted the most from Heath’s knowledge, and drive, is Kevin Molino, who this year broke out for both club and country.
The 24-year-old Trinidad & Tobago international had been USL PRO’s Most Valuable Player before, earning the honor in 2012, but this past summer was one that will take a lot to be surpassed by those who follow in USL PRO. His 20 goals set a new league record as he put himself into scoring positions on a more frequent basis.
“The one thing I used to kick on at him every single day was, ‘you’ve got to get in the box more, you’ve got to score more goals, you’ve got to make goals’,” Heath said. “Kevin’s such a lovely footballer, he’d enjoy making goals as much as scoring them in the past, and I said to him, ‘listen, for the next stage in your development you’ve got to start scoring more goals, you’ve got to get into the box more,’ and this year, everything’s come together.”
Heath is hopeful Molino will make a strong transition to Major League Soccer, along with the other players the club has already signed for next year that competed for the club in 2014. One who appears on the verge of joining that group is full back Luke Boden, who was rewarded for another consistent season with his first All-League selection this year, and is currently negotiating a contract to join the club in MLS.
“Getting voted by your peers and by the people who watch you week-in and week-out is only a just reward for the consistent performance he’s put in over the last few years,” Heath said of Boden. “We transformed him from a midfielder to a left back, and these last four years he’s been growing with us and getting better and better, more understanding of his role within the team, and he’d love to have the opportunity to come with us. We’re in the process of sorting his contract out. We’re delighted for him that not only has the work he’s put in over the last four years has been rewarded, but it’s nothing more than he’s deserved.”
While Boden, Molino and others will make the move to MLS, another of the Lions’ former players will be aiming to help groom the future for the side in Louisville. Former midfielder and assistant coach James O’Connor was named as Louisville City FC’s coach earlier this year when a group led by Wayne Estopinal purchased Orlando’s USL PRO rights, and Heath is full of confidence that the new franchise has the right man to lead it on the sidelines.
“I think one of the great things about James is what you see is what you get,” Heath said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. He came in every single day, trained at his maximum. Everything he does, he wants to do at his maximum. He doesn’t want to let anybody down. He’s a very conscientious guy, wanted to be a coach for a long time. He’s got every badge you could have, he’s done all of his coaching qualifications, so it’s been in the making for Jamie for a long time, and we had to pick the right time for him to go on to the next stage, and we felt this was the right time.
“I’ve no doubt that James will be successful. He’s incredibly driven, knowledgeable, and he’s got an incredible will to be successful, so couple that with the club that he’s going to, we’re going to help out as much as we can, I think James is a perfect fit for what we’re all trying to do.”
If O’Connor is a good fit for Louisville on the sidelines, Estopinal is the same in the club’s board room. A former member of the Lions’ Board of Directors, Estopinal is in the process of building a strong front office that includes veteran U.S. soccer executive Djorn Buchholz and former W-League Executive Director Amanda Duffy. Rawlins believes Louisville has a big opportunity to become another outstanding USL PRO franchise.
“I think it’s a great city; I think they’ll have tremendous, passionate support from The Coopers,” Rawlins said. “It’s a city that doesn’t have a lot of pro sports to say, and that’s why I think it will get well adopted and well embraced by the community. On the visits I’ve been there, I like the city of Louisville very much. I think it’s a great city to live and work and play in, and it will be fun to see that organization grow in the city over the coming years. I think they’ve got a really fertile ground to grow a very solid and very successful USL PRO club.”
Louisville will be one of a number of teams to join USL PRO in 2015, with the Austin Aztex set to join from the PDL, and the Charlotte Independence, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Saint Louis FC and Tulsa Roughnecks FC announced as expansion franchises alongside the additions of the Portland Timbers 2 and Seattle Sounders FC 2. As a member of the league’s Board of Governors, Rawlins has been a strong advocate for the league as it has looked to grow the game in support of MLS.
“Really since Alec [Papadakis] took over the reins and started to take USL forward, there has been a massive sea of change, and that’s great to see,” Rawlins said. “I love the fact that the grassroots level of the game, the minor leagues of the game are doing so well and flourishing and developing and growing and being stable, and the fans are embracing their teams and coming out to games.
“You see what Sacramento is doing right now, which has been tremendous, but that’s true of a lot of teams. A lot of teams’ attendances are going up, the quality of play has increased dramatically in the past four years, the quality of facilities. You look at the teams that have just got their own stadiums and better facilities to play in, it is great to have seen that happen, it’s great to have been personally a small part of it. For me, USL PRO is now becoming the league I always thought it could be, and it’s very rewarding to see that happen.”
Heath agrees, and believes the partnership between Major League Soccer and USL PRO will allow the league to continue to get stronger on the field while offering young players a greater chance to reach their potential.
“The league’s getting better and better every season, and I think with this affiliation with USL PRO and MLS, it’s only going to get better and stronger,” he said. “I think it’s getting the base of the game in America - all of these players in the U.S. that the academies are producing and the game at the junior level is as strong as anything, and they’re going to need places to play - so I just see the game getting stronger across the board and the fact that there is this cooperation between USL PRO and MLS, there are so many young players now that are getting the chance to play real, meaningful games. It’s going to be great for their education and their growth as a player.”
Louisville certainly could be a destination for some of the bright prospects that are coming up through Orlando’s academy, and one of Heath’s aims for 2015 is to continue building the club from the ground up as more players look to follow in the footsteps of Tyler Turner and Tommy Redding, both of whom featured for the Lions this past season.
The other goal for 2015, of course, is to be competitive from the off in MLS. With the high-profile signing of Kaka, the Lions set a marker for what they expect their club to be as it joins the top flight of North American soccer, with the goal of reaching the playoffs the big target for Heath and his side.
“We want to be competitive,” Heath said. “We’ve always put ourselves out there, and Phil’s already come out saying we’re not going to be there to make the numbers up, so we’re encouraging each other and that’s part and parcel of the make-up of what we’re trying to achieve here. We want to try and make the playoffs. Only two teams have done it, and the first one was Chicago, so if we can make the playoffs next year, that would represent a really good first year.”
Rawlins is eager to see what Heath can do as he makes the transition, too. The long-standing relationship between the two has been integral to Orlando’s success so far, and is set to continue in MLS.
“I’m fortunate insomuch that I’ve only ever had one head coach,” Rawlins said. “My relationship with Adrian is very strong - we’re very close and we’re friends as well as business colleagues - and I’ve always said way back to our days in Austin that we’ve had a great coach, and probably one of the best coaches in the country, and I think he’s proved that. His track record is second-to-none. I’m just delighted for him, to be honest, that he’s going to get the chance to prove himself in the big leagues. He’s going to get to pit his wits and match his skills and coaching expertise against the best this country has to offer, and I personally expect him to be among the best in MLS, just as he’s been in USL PRO.”
While there remains work to be done, with the expansion draft next up for the Lions in December, Rawlins is already excited for the first time the Lions step onto the field as an MLS club, his vision from four years ago finally a reality.
“The journey has been hectic,” Rawlins said. “It’s been busy, it’s been non-stop to be honest, and it continues to be a very, very hectic-paced schedule and a lot to do, a lot to get ready for March of next year for our first MLS game, but it’s certainly been a very rewarding journey. We’ve had tremendous support from the community, support from our politicians, our sponsors, and of course most of all our fans, the people in central Florida who have taken Orlando City to their hearts and made it so real for us.”
And, Rawlins adds, there has never been a better time to be part of soccer in North America. With big ratings for the World Cup, the success of EA Sports’ FIFA video game franchise, and a new television deal for Major League Soccer set to start next year, the future appears bright not only for Orlando City, but for the sport as a whole.
“Whether it’s through cable television, or FIFA the game, however people get to digest soccer, the meal of the game is getting bigger and bigger, and more appetizing, and that’s why you could see the growth of the game coming,” Rawlins said. “It’s wonderful to be in the middle of that as it takes hold and takes root and you see people who, every day, embrace soccer for the first time in their lives, had never thought that they would be a soccer fan, and now they’re giving this game a chance. That’s the great thing about the United States, we do open ourselves up as a people to everything and we make ourselves very available and very accessible, and once you do that with soccer it gets into your bloodstream, and once it gets into your bloodstream that’s it, there’s no going back.
“I don’t think the game is going anywhere but up. I think it’s a very different time for soccer today than it was 30, 40 years ago when it had its last growth spurt. The game’s embedded now, and it’s just going to go from strength to strength. I think the only question that remains is how big is it going to become?”