KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Orlando City midfielders Anthony Pulis and John Rooney are convinced that their new club can be an asset to Major League Soccer, even though the British duo joined the team just a few weeks ago.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber travels to Central Florida this week to host a series of meetings with Orlando City’s owners, city politicians and supporters’ groups to explore the viability of the team joining America’s top league somewhere down the line.
“I don’t see any reason why Orlando can’t be the next club,” Pulis told The Soccer Observer after Saturday’s 2-2 tie with Toronto F.C. at the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. “The team had a lot of success last year. Hopefully we can go and do that again this year and, fingers crossed, when Don Garber comes down he’s impressed by the whole set-up.”
That set-up likely won’t include the cavernous Florida Citrus Bowl given Garber’s push for MLS teams to build their own soccer-specific stadiums. The 70,000-seat venue was the site of Republic of Ireland striker John Aldridge’s infamous bust-up with a touchline official during the 1994 FIFA World Cup and is currently serving as Orlando’s temporary home.
Other pieces in Orlando’s future have already been put in place. The club recently took a controlling interest in the Seminole Soccer Complex and the Florida Soccer Alliance youth club. The 40-acre facility north of the city will serve as both the training ground for the professional team and as a center of excellence for youth soccer in the region.
“They’re doing a bit of work on the pitches now, but it’s a really, really good facility,” said Pulis, who previously had spells with English clubs Portsmouth, Stoke City and Southampton.
Orlando’s fan base has also impressed Pulis and Rooney. Almost 8,000 fans watched Orlando defeat F.C. New York 3-0 in last April’s United Soccer Leagues home opener at the cavernous Florida Citrus Bowl. A record crowd of 11,220 saw the Lions lift the USL crown five months later after a thrilling penalty shootout win over Harrisburg City Islanders.
That attendance was particularly impressive given the University of Central Florida hosted its opening game of the college football season in Orlando on the same night.
“The fans are fantastic here,” said Rooney, who opened the scoring against Toronto from the penalty spot. “I think Orlando is more than ready to step up into MLS.”
Promotion to MLS from America’s third tier would undoubtedly lead to a spike in attendances for Orlando. Portland Timbers’ average crowd rose to almost 19,000 in its inaugural MLS season in 2011 compared to less than 11,000 a year earlier in the second division. Fellow expansion side Vancouver Whitecaps experienced an even bigger bump to over 20,000 from just over 5,000 a year earlier.
It’s also a big week on the field for Orlando. Adrian Heath’s side faces F.C. Dallas Tuesday in its second group game at the Walt Disney tournament having already held MLS sides Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union and Toronto this month.
Orlando is preparing to defend both the USL Pro Division regular season title and overall championship that it won in its debut season. The club originally began play as the Austin Aztex in 2008 but moved from Texas after the 2010 season.