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SPECIAL REPORT (P1): Orlando City - the beginning and the present

In a three-part series, is embedded inside MLS expansion club Orlando City, gaining exclusive access to the franchise's powerbrokers as they prepare to shake up US soccer in 2015.

  Sometimes in life you have to pinch yourself just to make sure you are not dreaming.

That is the feeling I anticipate Phil Rawlins and Adrian Heath would be experiencing ahead of the 2015 Major League Soccer season.

A dream that began in the English town of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire more than seven years ago, and has found its way to central Florida via Austin, Texas, is about to be realised when March 8, 2015 pops up on our calendars.

However, this is a dream that certainly has not occurred overnight with former Stoke City director Rawlins and ex-Everton midfielder Heath both working tirelessly, surrounded by the backing of a generous owner and the support of a dedicated staff and loyal front office, to now be standing on the cusp of potential American soccer greatness.

Orlando City Soccer Club are one of the most well-oiled, prepared, passionate and ambitious sporting organisations I have ever had the pleasure of seeing first-hand and it will only be a matter of time until the wider football community sits up and take notice.

Head coach Heath recalls the early days of what is now commonly referred to as 'OCSC' and how his interest piqued when the burgeoning club was only in its infancy.

"Obviously I'm from Stoke originally and I had just moved back there," Heath told

"I'd been fired at Coventry (City) and I was probably as down as I've been because up until then, my career had pretty much been plain sailing. I'd had a good professional career, I'd won quite a lot, I'd played for good clubs and then gone into coaching and everything was going ok.

"I was probably really disappointed that I didn't get the Coventry job and when I got back home to Stoke, I ended up meeting Phil by chance and we arranged to meet again because Phil was living in America and I said, 'Hey, we've just been over there'. With Coventry we had played Portland and we had had a couple of games and I thought, 'this is getting exciting over here, it's taking off'.

"And to that end, Phil said to me, 'I'm thinking of building a club in America'. So I just came out with, 'bear me in mind if you are looking for somebody', because it's something I've thought about because I think the game is going to grow (in North America).

"So from there, to be where we are seven years in, is pretty remarkable really. And to have relocated is a huge thing because coming from the UK, that is sacrilege, moving your club.

"So when Phil said to me, 'listen, I'm thinking of moving here (from Austin to Orlando)', I remember my first thought was 'Wow, that's a big one!'"

The Lions, as they have come to be known, were savagely successful during their time in US Soccer's third tier - the USL PRO - winning three regular season titles and two Championships in just four seasons.

It is those accomplishments that has club founder Rawlins in a very buoyant mood as they prepare for the enormous step up to the US and Canada's top flight.

Immediately, winning silverware is on the agenda despite the fact Orlando City know have to navigate a competition consisting of such competitive beasts as the LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake to name just a few imminent oppponents.

However, those names don't really seem to faze Rawlins who is intent on mixing it with MLS' big boys - hence the 'Defy Expectations' ethos emblazoned all around the front office in downtown Orlando and the training facilities at Seminole Soccer Complex near Lake Mary.

"We've made no secret of the fact, and journalists have reported on it, that we want to make the play-offs," said a confident Rawlins.

"Some people have said, 'why have you done that, it will increase pressure?', but why wouldn't you want to make the play-offs?

"It's our plan. We are not planning to fail, we are planning to succeed.

"When you have those goals, we don't mind putting them out and there and saying, 'look, this is what we want to achieve'.

"We think, we believe that we have got the kind of organisation, the kind of front office staff, the kind of coaching staff, the talent and when combined - with a little bit of luck - we can aim for the play-offs.

"Goal number one is get into the play-offs. We know it is going to be tough but it is our goal. The fans expect it of us, they expect us to be successful.

"We've never not been successful so there comes with it an expectation. Obviously we've made a huge step up in quality so the job becomes even more difficult but we don't want to change that, we want a winning football club."

Orlando City will enter the league at the exact same point as New York City FC, which is owned jointly by reigning Premier League champions Manchester City and Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, but those enormous names do not hang dauntingly over Rawlins' head as he feels his club has grown organically over time which appears to a major benefit.

"I think there are several advantages. First of all, just look at our fanbase," he said in his typical measured fashion.

"The fact that we have an established fanbase that know the club, some of their traditions are already established. Their expectations are established, they know the way we are going to play, they know our philosophy.

"People will be guessing as to where players fit into the formation but nobody will be guessing how we are going to play because we are going to play the same way. I think that is a huge advantage (over NYCFC).

"On the field, obviously having Adrian (at the helm) for seven years is a big advantage because we know how he wants to work, we know what he wants to do and who he wants to work with. We know what his expectations are so that's a massive advantage over getting a brand new coach from the get-go.

"The third piece of it is the fact that we have an established front office. We had an infrastructure going into this year. Although we've added a lot of people, we've added them into the existing structure.

"Ramping this up from scratch, like New York have done, that would have been tough but the fact we had pieces in place really helped."

Heath concurs: "We have everything in place that we need. We have a supporter base, we have a training facility.

"When we went for the flick of the coin for who got the (number one) draft choice (in January), Jason (Kreis) was saying they (NYCFC) still needed a training ground. For them it has been an incredibly difficult time. They had so much to do in a short period of time.

"The great thing for us basically was that we only had to concentrate on this (the training facilities). We had the ticket office and the corporate in place. Everything a football club needs, we already had. All we have done is padded it out a little more so that's been a help to us.

"From the first murmurings of being in the running to get a MLS team, to when it came, we had a long time to think about which way we wanted to go.

"I think that has been a big plus for us."

What naturally comes with a devoted supporter base is a healthy membership number and Orlando City already has that in droves.

Leading up to their entrance into MLS, the bar was set at 14,000 season ticket holders which would help with the eventual move into a soccer-specific stadium in the neighbourhood of Parramore, bordering Orlando's central business district.

With only a few weeks remaining until the season's first kick, that goal is set to be achieved with relative ease, although the hard-working team in the membership department may disagree.

Nevertheless, things off the pitch are looking remarkably positive according to Rawlins: "We've made public our goals and our planning.

"Our goal has always been to get to 14k (members). We are in touching distance now after blowing through 12,000. We are closing in on that goal.

"I think we will do it, I thought from the beginning that we would make it there, which is a fantastic statement about the way the soccer community in Central Florida have taken this team into their hearts.

"That (membership number) will put us in the top three in the league. Considered we are the 19th biggest market place, we are really punching above our weight."

That in turn will see a record-breaking crowd attend the Citrus Bowl for the first home game of the season which happens to be against fellow newcomers New York City on the first Sunday in March.

The buzz in Orlando for this particular fixture is deafening but Rawlins continues to keep a calm exterior amidst all the commotion as he glances forward to the bigger picture. He is, however, well aware of the magnitude of attracting more than 60,000 people to what is expected to be a momentous occasion in the short history of the club and for sport in 'The City Beautiful'.

"The New York game is a one-off, it is an historic event, it will never ever be repeated again so we are encouraging everyone to get out there and be a part of it," he added further.

"But when you are three or four games deep in the season and you are talking about the natural following the club has, our goal there is to have a sold-out season.

"That is around about 20,000 (per home game). That's why we have a 14,000 (season ticket cap) because then we have got 6,000 left to work with. You've got to consider sponsors, group sales, day game sales, away fans and you've got to consider complimentary tickets and visitors and everything else.

"We know if we've got 14,000 season ticket holders we can pretty much hit the other 6,000 to get to 20,000 every week. That's really what we want to cap it at because from a customer services standpoint, in a year's time, we are moving down the road to our new stadium which only holds 20,000.

"The thing people ask is, 'why would you limit yourself to 14, 000?'. Well there's a very simple answer: If we exceed that or if we push beyond that, then we will eventually create a problem for ourselves regarding customer service.

"What do you say to 2,000 season ticket holders when you don't have a seat for them?

"So we will aim for around 20,000 a game. Fortunately, the lower bowl of the Citrus Bowl happens to be about that (19,500) so we can fill that, create a great atmosphere and then know that we can metaphorically pick that lower bowl up and move it down the street to the new stadium."

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Andrew Slevison
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