FROM STEVE BRENNER IN ORLANDO
Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are facing an uphill battle in the Orlando popularity stakes this weekend.
Disney World is a real life Magic Kingdom for millions yet not even the grandest of shows or white knuckle rides will match the atmosphere in the creaking, cavernous Citrus Bowl on Sunday afternoon.
A sell-out crowd of 62,000 will make their way downtown to witness Orlando City, led out by Brazilian legend Kaka, in their inaugural MLS match against another fellow newcomer in the shape of NYCFC.It’s an opening day fixture to get the marketing men salivating.
Yet while the newfangled New York franchise have literally started from scratch, this match, shown live on Sky Sports in the UK, marks the culmination of four years of hard work and realised dreams.
Adrian Heath, the former England Under 21 and Everton midfielder, has been in charge all of that time , thanks in no small part to a chance meeting in a Newcastle-under-Lyme pub with a bloke called Phil Rawlins.
Rawlins, a director at Stoke City who founded a highly successful IT sales and marketing consulting company in Texas, has lived in the US for 17 years and was desperate to make his mark in a football scene he could see growing before his very eyes.
Heath was keen tooOut of work after not having a caretaker stint at Coventry City turn into a permanent role , the 54 year-old had already witnessed what effect the beautiful game was having in the US during a pre-season tour which took him to the fanatical footballing hotbed of Portland.
The possibilities fascinated him.
Initially the pair, introduced to each other by agent Gary Mellor, went to Texas where Rawlins founded the Austin Aztecs. At this point, leaving the USL Pro, the third tier of the American soccer scene, and joining MLS was more than a pipedream.
So Rawlins upped sticks and relocated everyone to Florida. And Orlando City were born.
A first championship was secured in their inaugural season and, impressively, a fan base in a state which has enjoyed its fair share of disappointments following the folding of MLS side Miami Fusion in 2002 (Fusion were based in Fort Lauderdale, a good 200 miles away), the Orlando natives got straight behind the Lions.
Another regular season title and a second championship followed. That has ensured that Heath has achieved a rare feat – taking a team up through the levels in a country where promotion and relegation are dirty words.
Unlike New York City, there is a strong feeling of continuity allied with a natural connection to the city. Eight players remain the squad from their final USL Pro season.
NYCFC manager Jason Kreis will lead his team out for their first ever MLS match on Sunday
NYCFC will begin in front of a 62,000 sell-out crowd against Orlando City at Citrus Bowl in Florida
Yet not everything came easily. Behind the scenes, Rawlins was working tirelessly. He desperately wanted to take the club on to the highest level.
That, however, needs more than sweat and toil on the pitch. With top level franchise costs rocketing from $7.5 to $100 million, big bucks are needed to take a seat at the top table.
They were snubbed by MLS in 2012.
Enter Brazilian millionaire Flavio Augusto da Silva in February 2013. Having made his money in setting up English language schools back home, his arrival has been key. He provides the conduit between South America and the US, a partnership which satisfies many people on myriad levels.
Naturally, his wealth and business expertise have ensured Orlando City’s dream has become a striking reality. His links into the South American market, where so much talent bubbles under the surface, have been crucial – Columbia, El Salvador and Brazil are all represented in Heath’s squad. Honduran striker Bryan Rochez,19, is the youngest designated player in the League.
Former Birmingham City midfielder Lewis Neal ,the loan arrivals of Seb Hines from Middlesbrough and Republic of Ireland international and free agent Sean St Ledger give their English boss a reminder of home and some experience to boot.
Most importantly though, Orlando is the No 1 holiday destination for Brazil’s middle classes. So where better to start an Anglo-American-Brazilian franchise?
An impressive 20,000 were at a championship match against Charlotte. MLS couldn’t deny them again. Their place as the 21st franchise was confirmed nine months after Da Silva’s arrival.
The prospect of even more tourist dollars flowing into the city has got the club firmly on-side with the local authorities and businesses.
New York City have made their mark off the pitch with stellar signings to impress their fanbUnlike in Miami when it comes to David Beckham, they are right behind his plans, so much so that, after agreeing a public and private partnership plan, a brand spanking new 19,500 stadium could be ready for the start of next season. Walt Disney World Resort are one of the founding sponsors.
Oh, and he is friends with Kaka. When Da Silva came calling, the 32 year-old former world footballer of the year didn’t have to think twice. The $7.2 million salary – making him the best paid player in the League – certainly helped.
His fanfare arrival piqued interest like never before. Kaka is the man Heath is building his team and vision around. Injuries over the years may have taken their toll yet he still managed 56 games last term for AC Milan and Sao Paulo.
The kind of touch and awareness which saw him join Real Madrid for an eye watering £57 million in 2009 will be there for all to see.
Da Silva and Rawlins’ business plan has been ticking all the boxes so it will be fascinating to see how Heath adapts to MLS and the injection of quality he will encounter week in, week out.
Only two expansion teams have reached the end of season playoffs in their debut campaign, so history is not on Orlando’s side. The chairman has already stated that his men have to make sure they’re the third.
The pressure is on without a ball being kicked.
Yet with such brilliant support in the stands, the city and the boardroom, you get the feeling Heath’s men are onto a winner, whatever happens.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH IN MLS
Kaka – Orlando City SC
The Brazilian won the Ballon d’Or back in 2007, so it is understandable that a lot is expected of him with new MLS franchise Orlando City. He may not be the player he was back in 2007 but he still has the ability to dribble past players and pick a pass.
Frank Lampard – New York City FC
One of two high-profile signings made by New York City on their introduction to the league. Lampard won more than 100 caps for England and 11 major trophies with Chelsea in 13 years. He is due in New York in the summer once he has finished playing with Manchester City.
Steven Gerrard – LA Galaxy
The Liverpool midfielder will become the second former England captain to join LA Galaxy following the successful period of David Beckham. Like Lampard, Gerrard will not join Galaxy until the summer once the Premier League has finished. He will link up with former Reds team-mate Robbie Keane.
David Villa – New York City FC
Villa became New York City’s first marquee signing when he joined after helping Atletico Madrid win La Liga last season. He has spent time on loan at Melbourne City in the Australian A League and he will be expected to score the bulk of New York’s goals in their debut season.
Bradley Wright-Phillips – New York Red Bulls
Overshadowed by brother Shaun in England but since moving to MLS he has been the star man for the Red Bulls. He won the Golden Boot last season with 27 goals in 32 games. With the departure of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill he could struggle to score as many this term.