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MLS SPECIAL: Phil Rawlins ready to make Orlando City the Soccer Capital of the South

Since his days as an owner and director of English Premier League club Stoke City, Phil Rawlins has made enormous strides into the North American soccer market.

The Stoke-on-Trent native is the founder and president of USL-PRO side Orlando City SC who will become the 21st franchise to enter Major League Soccer next year.

The two-time USL-PRO champions take the step up to the USA and Canada's top flight for the 2015 MLS season, along with New York City FC, just five years after relocating to Florida from Austin.

Rawlins founded the Austin Aztex back in 2008 before he and wife Kay, who has been a major part of the MLS expansion, up and left for Orlando in 2010.

Now, along with Brazilian owner and chairman Flavio Augusto da Silva, fellow owner John Bonner and an experienced off-field team, Rawlins and the Lions are on the verge of realizing a long-standing dream by joining North America's elite.

After a chance meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Rawlins took the time to speak with regarding the success of the club thus far and what is on the horizon for Orlando City SC.

"The Orlando community has embraced the team since day one in the market," said Rawlins last month.

"We have already sold over 7,500 season tickets and still have five months to kick-off. I expect we will see high attendance from the get-go.

"We have come a very long way in a short space of time. For example we were just recognized as the 'team with most wins in US soccer history in our first 100 pro games'.

"That's an incredible achievement and something we have to build on as we get ready for MLS. Going into the major league is just the beginning for us, we want to compete immediately in MLS and continue to build our global presence."

One of Orlando City's major announcements in their short history was the signing of World Cup-winner and former AC Milan and Real Madrid star Kaka in June.

Lions owner da Silva used his strong ties with the 32-year old Brazilian attacking midfielder, who will join for the new season after his loan with Sao Paulo, and his presence in Orlando is expected to take the club to the next level in both on-pitch performance and popularity in the city and surrounding regions.

"The Kaka announcement was an incredible experience, 11,000 people turning out to greet him, the airport packed with fans when he arrived etc," recalled Rawlins who swiftly returned to Orlando from the World Cup in Rio to unveil the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or winner.

"He has already made a big impact on the central Florida community and I expect that will only grow once he is living and playing here in Orlando.

"We had been talking with Kaka for about a year before the deal was announced publicly. The time and the opportunity had to be right for him and we had to help him get comfortable with Orlando City and our vision for the club.

"Flavio's relationship with him helped tremendously, Kaka is very engaged with us and passionate about our vision for Orlando City."

Nurturing young players, especially locals, is another way aside from landing big international names that Orlando City plan to make waves in MLS.

Rawlins and head coach Adrian Heath - a FA Cup winner with Everton and former Stoke midfielder - are all about youth development and the current make-up of the Lions squad is littered with talented youngsters who have come through the clubs academy.

"Adrian and I are completely on the same page on this one, we have always aspired to develop young players," he said of the Lions' burgeoning youth stocks.

"Just look at our team this year, we won the Regular Season Title (by 17 points) with a right-back who is 18 (Tyler Turner) and a Center-Half who is just 17 (Tommy Redding) and from Orlando.

"We finished the game a few weeks ago with five teenagers on the field. Our Academy is developing really well under the leadership of Paul McDonough, Darren Powell and Jeff Negalha.

"We have a wealth of talented youngsters in Florida and would love to see some of them pulling on the purple jersey in the coming years."

The next thing on the agenda was assuring the rapidly growing section of Orlando City fans and the American soccer public in general that the Lions will be a much more successful operation than the now-defunct Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny who have previously failed to gain a strong foothold in the Florida soccer market.

"Yes, we are very confident (of prolonged success)," Rawlins added further.

"The MLS is in a very different position today to when the Mutiny and Fusion folded. The League and soccer in general are growing rapidly in the US and Orlando has proven to be a 'real' soccer hotbed.

"Just look at the figures - 5th highest TV market in the World Cup, over 30,000 people at our World Cup Watch Parties, over 7,500 Season Tickets already sold, 21,000 at our Championship game last year!

"Orlando is the Soccer Capital of the South!"

Then there is the question of affiliations with other clubs and whether or not there will be any type of partnership with Rawlins' hometown club Stoke.

The Orlando City chief says at this point in time there is nothing official with the Potters but touched on the associations with Portuguese giants Benfica and incoming USL-PRO franchise Louisville City.

"We have had a very good relationship with Stoke City, primarily because of my role on the Board there. However, today there is no formal relationship with them," said Rawlins.

"We recently announced a strategic partnership with Benfica which is very far-reaching in scope and something that we are very excited about.

"We have announced an affiliation with Louisville City in the USL-PRO. We know the ownership there well and the Front Office. James O'Conner will coach the team (ex-Orlando City) so we feel very confident about the affiliation with Louisville. I believe it will prove to be a very strong market also."

Rawlins is adamant that Orlando City will be looking to push for MLS play-offs immediately and is not shying away from mixing it with the likes of the LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls.

"We have built a winning culture in the club and will maintain that going into MLS," he added.

"It was important for us as a club to finish up well in USL-PRO and winning our 3rd Regular Season Title in four years certainly did that for us.

"We have said since we were announced as MLS Team 21 that we are coming to compete and our goal is to make the play-offs."

And with five pieces of silverware in four years (three regular season titles and two USL-PRO Championships) and an ever-growing supporter base, it is easy to see why there is so much positivity surrounding Orlando City SC.

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