Phil Rawlins came to the United States with an idea. The former Stoke City director wanted to establish the next great American soccer franchise, something distinctly unique in its culture and scope. He achieved the foundation of that here in Orlando, where he has built a legacy and etched himself into the history of the city, let alone the club.
Rawlins, who will continue to serve under the moniker Life President after stepping down from day-to-day duties, has now handed the reins off to CEO Alex Leitao. He will remain involved as a member of the board and will still have a hand in what he has worked so hard to create, but the names that were so familiar to fans of the team’s early days in USL Pro have faded away. The club has changed incredibly since 2010, but with Rawlins at the forefront there was a sense of familiarity. We were still that same little club that played in front of a few thousand fans in what seemed to be a cavernous Citrus Bowl.
Now, after transforming into a club with players recognized around the world who can fill that same stadium several times, Rawlins is no longer the one pulling the strings. He’s still here and will still be that brand ambassador that he has always been, but things will be different. But the legacy of what Phil has built will resonate around the ground that he helped construct. If there were a pantheon of City legends, he would certainly be chief among them.
Rawlins filled a gap in the Orlando sports market that not many people fully understood was there. He brought professional soccer to Central Florida for the first time in a decade; at that point, an MLS franchise was nothing more than a dream, the same dream that Rawlins had shared with then-Head Coach Adrian Heath over a pint in a bar back in England in 2008. The Orlando market was viable but largely untested. Phil had enough faith to relocate his Austin Aztex, a largely unsuccessful venture that produced moderate results on the field but never really captured the attention of central Texas. But the club ignited an infectious spirit when it came to town with Rawlins and Orlando City. The people latched onto these purple Lions and came out to support them in droves. It was a club of the people that not only brought the community together, but represented it well by dominating on the pitch.
The USL days will always be romanticized by the Orlando faithful, as they should be. Rawlins and his staff, among them old manager Heath, conquered the lower leagues of American soccer with a ferocity. No other club had won as many matches in its first 100 league games. The Lions brought silverware in at an unheard-of rate, winning two league titles and three regular season crowns in just four years.
Rawlins had not only brought pro soccer to Orlando, he had brought a dominant winner. It was something for the community to rally around and something that everyone in the city wanted to identify with. The club made the rest of the U.S. take notice and earned a well-deserved spot in the top flight as MLS’s 21st franchise.
It was the first major step toward realizing Rawlins’ dream, but it was hardly the last. Support was still wildly successful as the Citrus Bowl welcomed over 62,000 roaring supporters for a memorable first match in the big leagues, watching superstar Kaká stun New York City FC with a late free kick. The fans came out to see the team in record numbers, posting attendance numbers in the upper echelon of the league.
The competitive spirit that had won so much silverware was still there, overcoming injuries, international call-ups, and suspensions to have one of the best expansion seasons in league history. The club branched out to create international partnerships, first with SL Benfica of Portugal, then Rawlins’ own hometown club, Stoke City, and then most recently with Brazil’s Atlético Paranaense. Orlando City now had connections on a global scale, extending its reach beyond Central Florida.
But the club also needed to be all-encompassing and needed to build stability for the future. So Orlando City B and the Orlando Pride came to fruition in 2016. There was finally a bridge from the academy to the first team in OCB and Orlando now had a women’s team to support. Rawlins, who stepped in as General Manager following a tumultuous end to 2015, built both with the same competitive goals as his first club. OCB made the playoffs in the team’s first year and Rawlins managed to swing one of the most recognizable names in women’s soccer by securing the services of Alex Morgan for the Pride. Orlando was now unique even among American soccer communities with MLS, USL, and NWSL sides along with professional academies for both boys and girls. It was the final piece in the transformation of Orlando into a true soccer city, one that turns purple on match days.
Those days will be even more special in 2017, when the club finally opens the doors on its brand new stadium in downtown.
“The opening of the stadium in March is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. With the stadium complete I have accomplished all that I promised the community of Central Florida when I arrived in Orlando in 2010,” Rawlins said in a release from the club.
And it will be a monument of what he has accomplished in so little time. There may not be a rotating lion statue out front, but it is a classic design that has become the envy of the league. With an end that is wall-to-wall safe-standing, a roof to keep the summer Florida weather off the supporters, and a pitch below sea level to keep the noise in, Orlando could become an even more difficult place for opposing teams to play. But the most important part of the new stadium is the reminder of its connection to the community. The memorial to the Pulse nightclub victims will forever be a reminder in section 12 of how the club is an extension of the city, not just a sports team.
Orlando’s soccer culture would not exist without Phil Rawlins and the small team that he brought to town. From the die-hard supporters to the casual fans and anyone who has been touched by the community service that the club has provided, we all have Rawlins to thank for the many experiences that have brought this city together over the last few years.