On Tuesday, The Mane Land broke the news about Orlando City's intentions to end the affiliation agreement with Louisville City and develop players in house with a new, locally based USL club.
That evening, Vice President of Development Tim Holt spoke to the gathered media at halftime of the Lions' U.S. Open Cup match against Columbus Crew SC to give a little background on the decisions and what the future of Orlando City's USL plans might entail.
Here's how it went:
What can you tell us about this big news and why it's important for the club?
Tim Holt: "It's enormous. Exciting day for the club, and it's an exciting day for Central Florida soccer fans. Obviously we as a club have our roots in USL the first four years and sort of built ourselves up and proved this was an MLS market. And now, having established ourselves in MLS, the USL team becomes important in different ways.
It becomes important from a player development standpoint, certainly, in terms of providing all of these emerging young players that we have not just on the first team but coming up through the academy, an opportunity for meaningful professional games -- up to 30 games a year. And it's also important from a club development standpoint in terms of connecting with more partners and players and different communities surrounding Orlando throughout the Central Florida market. So, both from a business development standpoint and a player development standpoint, it's a pretty significant development."
Obviously a lot of thought went into this decision. Why was it made at this time instead of when the club started?
TH: "I'm 45 days into this with the club. My previous professional incarnation was with USL, full disclosure. I think when the club entered into MLS, the trend and just because of what was happening, it made sense to affiliate with Louisville City. (There were) Great relationships, both from a coach (and) from an owner's standpoint. It made a lot of sense to have that relationship."
But things change very fast in the soccer world. Professional soccer is developing at warp speed. And for us to be able to keep up and be seen as one of the more progressive clubs in MLS -- more and more teams are doing their own stand-alone teams. The stand-alone team gives us the benefit of all the players in the professional pool training together, day in and day out and be able to not have to fight geography and logistics for them to get games. So you get to benefit a young player -- take a Harrison Heath or any number of different players we have -- training day in and day out with Kaká. There's value in that. There's also value in that player getting games, and then when they do get games they're able to contribute and they're match fit. They're ready to go."
I give a ton of credit to the ownership - Phil and Flavio, Paul McDonough - for supporting something that we think is very, very important to the future development of the club. Huge investment in the academy. This is the bridge between the MLS and the academy."
How is the development system coming along?
TH: "In terms of actual teams, we're getting there. It's sort of building some depth and some meat in there. It's early days. The youth club as we know it is only about one or two years old, so we need all these pieces in place, but that's a long-term yield. It takes six, seven, eight years to develop kids from the younger ages, but when they do come through, there has to be a place for them other than the MLS team. And the USL is a strong league, it's a growing league and week in, week out very competitive. So we'll be able to play some first-team guys that aren't getting games. We'll have a core component of guys on USL contracts, and then we'll have some of the most outstanding academy players sort of supplementing that roster and playing a full USL schedule."
Is there a venue in mind, or is there an opportunity to play around the region to build the brand?
TH: "I don't think we'll be nomadic. We haven't ruled anything in and out. We're going through a process of exploring different venues throughout the Central Florida region. Certainly playing in Orlando is one option but anything within a sort of 60- to 90-minute drive could be an option for us. I think the most important thing is finding an appropriate venue for this team to play. We want something that's intimate for fans. It needs to be big enough to meet the league's standards, so you're looking at a five to ten thousand seat stadium. This isn't just about playing 30 professional soccer games, though. We want the fan experience to be as good as it has been throughout Orlando City's lifespan so far and I think we can do that and create a unique identity for this particular team - the USL team - and get all the player development benefits that we're talking about that make this make sense."
What is the timeline for selecting a venue and taking those next steps?
TH: "It's several months. It won't be something where we're making that announcement next week or even next month, but I would say by early fall - September or October - in order to make those announcements and get things locked in. The same thing with the branding of the team and more personnel decisions - potentially a general manager specific to that team. But there's going to be a full integration. This isn't sort of a subsidiary of a team. It's an extension of the first team on the player side, on the technical side, but it'll be an additional sort of brand and initiative on the commercial and the business side."
Is the Orlando area capable of sustaining an MLS and a USL team?
TH: "It's a good question. I think a lot of that depends on how you market the team. Obviously we need to be very deliberate about when we play the games, where we play them. We don't want to be competing against ourselves. We don't want to cannibalize our own fan base. That could occur, I think, if you don't manage it properly. But we think in this region, as big as it is, as big as the appetite is for entertaining soccer and a great night out, that we can manage that so that both teams can thrive."
Who was the driving force behind this decision?
TH: "Hard question to answer because I think it was almost universal that this needed to happen. So, obviously the technical side is going to drive that in order to keep up, which is the coaching staff and (GM) Paul McDonough. But no less enthusiastic are Phil and Flavio and Alex (Leitao), and I certainly didn't throw cold water on it when I came in here because it makes all the sense in the world. This is where the progressive clubs in this country are headed and our goal is to do it better than anybody else does it."
Did this season's rash of injuries contribute to making this decision?
TH: "When you have a roster of 28 players, when everybody's fit and available, you're going to rely on 14, 16, 18 guys. What about the other 10? And then when they are called upon, how can they be match fit? So it certainly accentuates the need for that when you have a period like the Gold Cup or you have a spate of injuries. You rely on the depth of your roster and those players need to be ready to go, and training's great but you can only be sharp if you're getting games with regularity."
Will the new USL club be purple too?
TH: "I think we're committed that there will be a visual sort of connection right away. As far as the branding's concerned, there's a lot of different opinions. We're going to get feedback from our supporters and fans and partners to be able to do that. A lot of the MLS teams that have done a stand-alone have put a ‘2' after it. I'd like to think that we're at least going to explore other unique and creative ideas for the identity of that team. I think when we introduce it, ultimately, you'll know that there's an association and a connection, but beyond that, we've got to figure that stuff out. We'd like to think that we can get creative."
Is there a plan to bring in a professional women's team to Orlando too?
TH: "Certainly that's a different conversation about the continued depth of the club. Again, the ambition of this club is second to none in American soccer. We're already pretty heavily invested through our youth club and our elite girls' programs -- the ECNL teams. Just like for MLS and USL teams, it's both aspirational and inspirational when you have a senior team on that side. So on the women's side, it's early days and I don't want to go too far out of my lane, but certainly when you look at the support of the sport in this region, something like that you think potentially could work, but that's not for today."