Phil Rawlins Q&A: The evolution and expectations of Orlando City SC

Orlando City Soccer founder and president Phil Rawlins has more than 15 years of sports team management experience, being an owner and director of his hometown team Stoke City FC of the English Premier League.

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Phil Rawlins is the founder and president of Orlando City SC, which officially begins play March 8 as one of two MLS expansion franchises. Orlando City won three USL PRO regular-season titles and two postseason championships in the four years after Rawlins moved the franchise from Austin, Texas. Orlando City, also known as the Orlando Lions, will play 34 regular-season games from March through late October. Twelve of the 22 MLS teams will make the playoffs (six from each conference), which will run until the beginning of December. The team will play in the recently renovated Florida Citrus Bowl while construction starts this spring on a soccer-only facility located near the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Rawlins has been living in the United State for more than 20 years and became an American citizen nine years ago. He has more than 15 years of sports team management experience, being an owner and director of his hometown team Stoke City FC of the English Premier League.

The following are comments by Rawlins during a press conference where local, national and international media representatives were present Friday after the team’s first day of practice under coach Adrian Heath:

PHIL RAWLINS: You’re going to find it very difficult to take a picture of me today without a smile on my face. This is a day we’ve waited for (for) seven years. It’s another historical milestone in the history of this great club, one that I’m delighted to see happen.

We are here to win, to make a mark on Major League Soccer — not to just make up the numbers, but as we’ve said all along, to compete. I think you saw by the standard and the quality of the facilities and the quality of players on the field that we’re certainly going to make that statement bold and strong.

There are more milestones to come. This is just the start of the journey. In the next month, obviously we’ll continue to build on the team and develop the team, bring in more players. We actually were about five international players short today. They were with their international teams. So you think about the level of talent that we’re bringing to this city, it’s quite amazing.

During the course of February — in fact, on February 7 — we’ll be holding an open practice session, open to all the public, to all our fans. Season ticket holders, casual fans, everybody in the community is welcome to come down and see the brand new Citrus Bowl, see the team training there for the first time. We’re going to mic up coach Heath as well, so everybody will be able to hear his instructions. I’ll have a word with Adrian before he goes live. (Laughs.)

Later in the month, we’ll move from here to the Carolinas and take part in the Carolina Challenge Cup up in Charleston. We’re looking forward to taking on the Houston Dynamo, the Charleston Battery and of course the New York City FC. We’ll return to home and get prepared for our final week before what will be another historical event, our inaugural home opener against New York on March 8.

Orlando City Soccer Club Media Day sights and sounds

A few words about the week leading up to March 8: That is obviously going to be a very historic week, a tremendous week for the club, a tremendous week for the community. So we intend to celebrate that with a lot of events. There will be more news on that later. But we’ll have a whole series of events — concerts, pub crawls, all kinds of things to celebrate our very first Major League Soccer game on March 8, where we hope to fill the bowl with 60,000 Orlando City fans.

QUESTION: What is your biggest challenge going forward?

PR: I’ve been asked that question a few times in the past few weeks. And everything in the front office is really in place. We had the structure in place, a really well-staffed minor-league team. So the organizational structure was there. The core pillars of the organization were already there.

When you look at our numbers, earlier this week we announced that we had more than 10,000 season ticket holders. We’re well on our way to our target of 14,000. We have a great ticket team, obviously. And I fully expect that we’ll hit 14,000 and we’ll have a sold-out season for 2015. That’s certainly our goal, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t achieve it.

The pieces are in place. We’ve just got to keep this whole thing moving forward, keep the momentum going. I have no qualms about doing that with a great front-office staff.

Q: Obviously your expectations are to compete. But can you comment on the strength of the players you’ve got and whether there may be any weaknesses when the season starts?

PR: That’s a question better answered by Adrian because at the end of the day, he’s our head coach. And I’ll leave that too to Paul McDonough, our general manager. Bad news is a fantasy. It’s just the opinion of a fan. I love what I see. Paul and Adrian have done an absolutely incredible job, an exceptional job of bringing the talent together you saw out there this morning at practice. We have great experience and a great leader in Kaka. Amobi Okugo, he’s 24 years of age and he’s played 100 games in the MLS. A great upside to him. Brek Shea, a U.S. international player, is returning from Europe. We can go on and on and on. And our goalkeepers, too — the best goalkeepers in the league. We’ve assembled a quality, very talented squad. I really don’t see any holes. We’re working on bringing a center back in, and we’d love to get one more central defender just to complete that. But we’re about done.

Q: Are making the playoffs are confident leap of faith or a hopeful leap of faith?

PR: It’s neither of those things. It’s part of our plan. It’s something we’ve talked openly for six to nine months, so it’s not a new phrase or a new term. Adrian and I have discussed it. We know what our goals are. We know it’s a lofty goal, but we’ve always been about setting lofty goals. Our motto is "Defy expectations," and that’s what we’ll continue to do. The expectation is for an expansion team to not make the playoffs, so why not defy that expectation? We think we’ve got the quality. We know we’ve got one of the best coaches in the league and a great coaching team and scouting staff around him. So let’s set the goal. Let’s go for it.

We know it’s not going to be easy. We’re not novices at this. We’re not naïve. It’s going to be a tough road and a long season. But if you get things right and the players jell, the playoffs are certainly an attainable goal.

Q: What were you first impression of seeing Kaka practicing today?

PR: Incredible for everyone. The idea of Kaka being out there with your team, wearing your jersey, representing the city of Orlando, representing the Lions — it’s a fantastic day. He’s a great leader. He’s a natural leader. He’s a humble man, a humble superstar. I think his biggest contribution will be measured on what he does in the locker room. I was at the facility this morning when he came in, and one of the first things he did when he changed was he went straight to the gym and stretched and worked out on the weights. That’s the kind of leader he is. That’s what we want. He certainly brings that. He’s been a winner wherever he’s been, and it’s great to have him here.

People think that today is the first time he’s been here. He’s been behind this project since the very beginning. I remember when we were counting votes to get the stadium finances passed. He was set up in his room in Milan watching on line. And one of the first texts I got was from him going, "Yeah, we got the stadium." His heart and soul is in it.

Q: What kind of imprint do you believe this team will have on this city?

PR: Good question. I don’t think the city knows yet. You look at the buzz we’ve created. You look at the awareness we’ve created — not just for the club, but for the city of Orlando and the community of Central Florida. And we haven’t kicked a ball yet. We don’t kick a ball in anger until March 8, which is five or six weeks away. So let’s measure it at the end of the season. Let’s measure it when we fill the Citrus Bowl on March 8. Let’s measure it when we’ve had a sellout season. Let’s measure it when we’ve got 20, 30, 40 thousand new fans want to get into the game. That’s when I think the community will really know the depth and the length and the breadth of what we can do through the franchise. And that’s not in a boastful way. That’s what we want to do.

We think we have a tremendous role to play in the future of the city. The city is changing. It’s becoming a very cool place to live. It’s a hip city these days. People are talking about Orlando very differently. And we want to be part of that message, part of that branding. Alex (Leitao, the franchise’s CEO) touched on one part of it was Brazil. We have a great opportunity to not only be a leading sports brand in Central Florida but a leading sports brand worldwide. And that means a lot. Thanks to everybody who stuck behind us to this point, but the best is yet to come.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.