In a 20-minute conversation with Orlando City Founder and President Phil Rawlins, we were able to cover a wide range of topics ranging from the GM position, to the new stadium and training facilities slated to open next season, and many other topics.
Well, let’s dig in.
First off, how’s the GM search going?
Phil Rawlins: First, let’s bust myth No. 1: we have a full-time GM, and in fact we have two — myself and Niki Budalic. So Niki covers our assistant general manager. When we brought him in, I wanted to ensure that we gave him a chance to work behind the scenes and learn the role and everything, and he’s done an awesome job. He's been with us almost a year, and I can’t praise him highly enough for the work he’s done, and the work he’s done behind the scenes. So Niki and I share the GM (duties) between us. So we do have two GMs — and we kind of have it covered twice, in that respect. And we’re not really searching for a new one, I expect Niki to move up to that role in the next few months and he will continue to do a great job.
Did the off-season Armando Carneiro situation make you more cautious in the approach to set a new permanent GM?
PR: When we took the decision that we needed to go in a new direction in the beginning of the year, then what I said at that point was like, 'look, this is a job that when you think about it, I’ve done for year, and it's no different' — because I’ve done it in the USL. So, at that point, I was like, ‘I’ve done this before, I’m used to doing this for several years, I’ve got the experience, we’ve got a great guy on board with Niki, what we need is a period of stability and we need leadership and stability, and I can provide that.’ So, I said 'let me stay in that role and provide the foundation, and provide that stability that we knew we wanted to have.' And with Niki as my right-hand guy, I think we’ve done that and we’ve done it pretty well.
Has it been tough managing that role this season (with a mid-window coaching change thrown in)?
PR: Go back to basics. When soccer fans generally — and Orlando City fans for that matter — look at what we do, or what an MLS team does, you’ve got to bear in mind that it’s not the same as running a club in the Premier League, or the Championship, or the Bundasliga, the Colombian first division — wherever you want to go. It’s different than anywhere else in the world because you don’t have to deal with salary caps, none of them have to deal with the kind of structure and joint ownership structure you do in MLS. And put Orlando City aside — this could be Dallas, it can be Columbus, or anyone else. You can’t just go out and make wholesale changes because the structure of the rules don’t allow it. So you’re already working within a structure that I’ve got to be not only cognizant of, but you’ve got to stay inside. You get outside of it, you get screwed up pretty quickly — you get fined, you get a slap on the wrist, things that get killed off pretty fast.
Bear in mind you’re working in that structure as you’re dealing with transfers, player personnel issues, and everything else. So you’re somewhat controlled. Therefore, you’re never going to see a club go into a transfer window and say, 'we’re going to change five or six players,' because you can’t physically do it. You’ve got to do it one piece at a time, and sometimes two pieces, but it’s small increments. So, that’s the first thing to bear in mind as a back drop.
But I think we brought in some quality players. You’re always looking to add to that and move the pieces around. In MLS, it’s more difficult because you’ve got that salary cap to work in and you’re like, 'well I’ve got to pay him $195,000, I’ve got to move this guy over to $75,000, and I’ve got to bring this guy in at $90,000.' And so, you see it’s a balancing act, as to how you go about it. So, in the transfer windows, this last transfer window for example, people kind of forgotten we brought in Jose Aja, partly furnished, and now everybody forgets where he came from. He was one of those players that came in during that window.
And we have made incremental strides with, again, a player like [Matias Perez Garcia], who is turning out, and is going to turn out, to be a great buy for us. A creative midfield player, someone that can play multiple roles, can go box-to-box. But we’ve added quality pieces, and we’ll continue to do that. I think what it is fair to say, in this last transfer window with the coaching change, and this was Jason's [Kreis'] choice, we said, 'if you need to make changes, we’ll make them,' and it was his choice, I think rightly so, to say, 'no, I want to assess what we’ve got, I want to give the players I’ve got here the chance to show me they want to be here, they want to be a part of this club, that I can assess their quality, and the worst thing I can do is make some big moves now before I understand that.' So, he took that decision, and we fully supported him on that, and that to a certain extent led to a quieter transfer window.
That said, we came very close to making a big signing — I don’t mean big in terms of money, it’s not like signing a Chicharito — what I mean by 'big' is a game-changing transfer for us, and I think it would have been substantial and it would have been game-changing. And it’s still there, by the way. It has not gone away, it just went away in that moment, should I say. And that was the only one that we really wanted to get done, if we could get it done. I think we’ll go back and revisit that — if it will happen, you don’t know in this time.
But I think you’ll see in this off-season that Jason’s had the opportunity now to assess the players for five-six months, will have the chance to work with them, knows their character — which is important to him, and rightfully so. He’ll have the chance to mold the shape of the team to what he wants and the kind of characters he wants around, and he’s making those decisions now based on a lot more time than he would have had in two weeks of training. And he also felt that we have a lot of quality players with good attitudes and good motivations that he wanted to work it. So yeah, it’s going to be an interesting off-season."
Speaking of Perez Garcia, does his contract end after this season (as some have reported)?
PR: I think we’ve taken over his contract from San Jose, and I think we’ve got another year on it.
And will San Jose be covering the rest of his contract next year, too?
PR: I think he’s got another year, so we won’t have to renegotiate.
Regardless, he’s in the plans for 2017?
PR: Absolutely. You’ve probably seen, as a lot of the fans have seen, the quality that’s come out of him the last few weeks. He’s an exciting player.
Is there any rush to sell Cyle Larin, and how much do the league rules regarding transfer fees for Generation Adidas players have on any potential sale?
PR: Obviously, to a certain extent, we’ve got to take that into account. But most important thing for Cyle is that Cyle keeps developing. It’s easy to forget he’s a kid — he’s 20. He happens to be leading our line, and happens to be scoring goals for the past two seasons, so that puts him in a different category with people, but he’s a kid. He’s learning the game. He’s only two years removed from college — and he only did 18 months in college. So, he’s developing as a player — he’s developing physically, he’s developing mentally, he’s understanding the game, he’s understanding what he’s got to do, and understanding how to make the most of the talents he’s got. That’s an important thought process with Cyle, and I’ve said to him personally, right now he’s in the best place to develop, and if you take away the transfer fee and you can move into another situation where he doesn’t have the opportunity to get those minutes and develop like he can in Orlando, and he wouldn’t benefit from it.
So, the next move for Cyle has to be the best move for Cyle. It’s got to be the right move in his development and, right now, I think the best thing for Cyle Larin is to be here in Orlando City, where’s he playing every week and he’s scoring goals.
The stadium just recently had its last piece of steel installed. What’s the next big milestone in the project?
PR: Well, we’re on schedule. So if anybody’s got any fears about if we’re going to open in 2017, we’re absolutely going to open in 2017. We’ll be open by the beginning of the season — we’re actually going to move all of the staff from here over there probably in February. I’m really pleased with its progress.
From a milestone standpoint, I think the next big milestone people will see is the south end of the stadium has been open for a long period of time because of construction purposes, so that’ll get closed in in the next few weeks, so you’ll start to see a complete stadium as opposed to a three-sided stadium, and that makes a big difference visually. If you’ve noticed right now, there’s a big hole in The Wall — that’s also there for construction purposes — and that hole will close up, and it will look like a complete end. I think the third big milestone you’ll see is the offices and VIP entrances on the west side all start to get finished off and begin to take shape. Right now it’s a lot of steel and wall coverings, but you’ll see it start to take shape.
So there’s some big things happening in the next few weeks, but it’s all going according to plan and we’re excited about it.
Is the plan to get in a test event before opening day next season?
PR: This is the kind of stuff you go to experts for. It’s not every day you open up a stadium. Everybody tells us you’ve got to have a test run. You’ve got to flush the toilets. Do the faucets run? Do the security gates work? Do the scanners work? And you don’t want to go through that, and you’d like to get it right for your first game. So we’re looking at right now if we should hold some kind of event in the facility, and with timing you want to be able to finish then get a meaningful test. You don’t want to be like, 'what did we learn because we didn’t finish?' So timing is definitely going to be interesting. I would imagine some time in the preseason we’re going to get an event in there, which will be a test event more than anything else, and will give us the chance to hopefully iron out a few kinks.
Are you close to revealing a stadium name?
PR: We’re working on it. We’ve got three or four very interested parties. Obviously, I can’t comment on who they are, but I don’t think we’ll have a big issue in selling the naming rights. The branding of the club, the awareness of the club, the visibility is something there’s a lot of interest in being associated with, and I think we’ll find out sometime within the next six months or so, is my guess. We may not have it done by the time it’s open, but there’s no rush for it.
Where do we stand on the new training facility? Word is there hasn’t actually been much dirt turned yet since the announcement.
PR: We’ve started the tree clearing, but we’ve really held back on that a little bit because we’ve got so many projects running in parallel, honestly, so we’ve got to be on the stadium, first and foremost — get that done, get it on time, get it done the way we want it done. And so a lot of our energy and our resources have gone to there to make sure it’s completed before we start up a new second project. It’s been delayed a few months, but it’s still very much in the plans to get it done next year.
Where do you expect OCB to be playing next season?
PR: We’d love for that to continue to be in Melbourne. Obviously, we’re coming towards the end of the season and we’ve entered into discussions again with Eastern Florida State College. We’ve got see, do they want us back? Does the community still want us? Do we want to be there? Do they want us to be there? But we’ll have those discussions in the next few weeks, but I think if we have our druthers that we’ll remain in Melbourne next year.
Would it make sense, logistically, to have three teams in the next stadium, if need be?
PR: It does. it can be done. It’s more, I think, a case of do we want to do it? Is it the right thing to do? I think there’s more than one decision. One is: can it be done? And I think the answer is yes, it can be done. Then the question is, do we want to do it? And that’s the question we don’t know yet. Do we? Is there a benefit for us to keep the footprints spread or to keep it closer? So that stuff we’ll weigh up over the next few months. But yeah, it’s certainly feasible.
What were your thoughts on the Forbes MLS evaluations ranking Orlando City fifth in the league in total value?
PR: At the end of the day, the people will tell you that the evaluation of a business is an art, not a science — it’s what multiplier do you do? Do you multiply it by revenue, do you multiply is by good will? It is an art.
That said, somebody’s going to put a value on you and people love league tables, so you’re going to be on a table somewhere. Forbes is obviously very well-recognized institution, they know what they’re doing. We’re obviously delighted to be in the top five — I think we should be in the top two, to be honest. I think when the stadium is done we will be in the top two or three, because that’s going to be added into the evaluation as well. If you look at all of the other measures — No. 2 in attendance, No. 2 in season ticket sales, we’re No. 2 or 3 in jersey and merchandise sales, we’re No. 1 in group ticket sales. We’re No. 1, 2, or 3 in every metric that the league has to measure.
So I think we’re a very valuable property, and it’s only going to get more valuable in its overall importance as we move into a new home.