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Before the Lions: How a Bold New Yorker Brought Professional Soccer to Orlando

In 2010, Phil Rawlins moved from Austin to Orlando to found Orlando City. But it was another businessman who brought professional soccer to Orlando.

Orlando City SC

Everyone has heard the story of how Phil Rawlins moved from Austin, TX, to Orlando and founded Orlando City SC. But Rawlins wasn't the one that brought the USL to Orlando.

In 1994, Rochester, NY, native Steve Donner returned to his hometown. Over the previous 11 years, Donner had worked in the marketing departments of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning and wanted to use that experience to help the city he loved.

Upon returning to Rochester, Donner became the president of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, the team he called "the love of my life." The appointment also gave Donner an option to buy the club, an option that he would exercise. Later that year, on Sept. 23, 1994, Donner introduced the newest team of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, the Rochester Knighthawks.

Two years after returning to Rochester, Donner would bring a new sport into the fold -- soccer. The Rochester Raging Rhinos began play in 1996 in the now defunct A-League. In 1999, this new team would do the unthinkable and win the U.S. Open Cup. To date, the Rhinos are the only team outside of MLS to win the tournament since MLS came into existence in 1996.

After nearly ten years of successful ownership, Donner ran into financial difficulties. His troubles resulted into not being able to pay the vendors of his events and defaulting on a $10.8 million loan from the NBT Bank of Norwich.

While this was occurring, Donner was attempting to renew the lease at War Memorial, the home of the Knighthawks and Americans. However, due to his financial troubles, the city of Rochester, which owned the building, told Donner he would have to sell his majority ownership of the three teams in order to negotiate the new lease.

In response, Donner sold the Knighthawks and Americans to Curt Styres in 2008 and the Rhinos to Rob Clark shortly thereafter. Styres had been a longtime fan of the Knighthawks and Clark would later bring back the outdoor lacrosse team, the Rochester Rattlers.

While maintaining a minority share of the Rhinos, Donner looked to buy into a new lacrosse team. He found that team in the New York Titans. The Titans had been founded in 2006 by Gary Rosenbach and bounced around between Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, and the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. With attendance steadily decreasing to less than 5,000 a game, the team's ownership group decided to relocate.

For months it was rumored that the club would either move to Newark permanently or would be relocated to Florida. After much speculation, the official announcement was made on Aug. 10, 2009, that the New York Titans would be moving to Orlando to become the Orlando Titans and would play at Amway Arena, home of the Orlando Magic.

Shortly after their arrival in Orlando, the ownership group made another announcement. They were planning the launch of a soccer team that would pair with the Titans and would play in the USL.

"It has been our intention since the beginning for the Titans to operate more than one professional sports franchise in this market and this announcement is the next logical step," Donner stated during the press conference announcing the team. "We looked at several different options, including indoor soccer and hockey, but in the end, professional outdoor soccer made the most sense in terms of being able to utilize our staff on a year-round basis without a lot of overlap in the seasons."

During that press conference on March 4, 2010, it was announced that the team would retain the name Orlando Titans and would be used as a cross-marketing tool with the lacrosse side. The new team was officially granted the rights for the Orlando market for USL Division 1 and would begin play in 2011.

Unfortunately, things weren't going so well for the Titans lacrosse team. "After much deliberation and careful analysis, we felt that it was in the best interest of everyone involved to take a year off and come back in 2012 with a more financially fit and competitive franchise," Rosenbach said in an Aug. 4, 2010 press release.

But the Titans lacrosse team wouldn't be back in 2012. Rosenbach had decreased interest in the team and Donner, who was president of the team, was running it at a loss, forcing him to cut staff. After failing to sell the team for the $1.4 million asking price, the team folded.

With the financial trouble surrounding the Titans organization, Donner, who had left the lacrosse team to focus on the soccer effort, sold the team's franchise rights to Austin Aztex owner Phil Rawlins. The new club would be named Orlando City Soccer Club and would begin play in the USL in 2011, with Donner staying on as CEO. Donner would eventually leave the club in 2012.

Over the next five years the club would win three Commissioner's Cups and two USL Championships. Attendances would rise to unprecedented levels for minor league soccer and, on Nov. 19, 2013, the club was officially announced as the newest team in Major League Soccer. It was the culmination of the nearly 20-year journey of a bold businessman that has been largely forgotten.