Our City is a weekly column dedicated to taking a wide-angled lens to the culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer.
You might have heard the news this week that Orlando City Founder and Life President Phil Rawlins is “semi-retiring” to the snow-capped mountains of Colorado. Like so many of you, I am grateful to Phil for bringing his soccer dreams to my city. He leaves Orlando — less than a decade after he arrived — a better place and forever a city icon.
The first time I heard Phil’s pitch to bring soccer to the City Beautiful he wasn’t aware I was listening.
Midway through the 2011 USL season, Orlando City played its first U.S. Open Cup game at the University of Central Florida Soccer Complex. The club had begun a successful USL campaign, gaining many early followers, but this U.S. Cup game wasn’t a big draw. I picked a seat at random in the sparse crowd, not knowing I’d sat in front of Phil. I’m not sure who he was sitting with and I don’t remember the details of the conversation I happened to eavesdrop on. However, it didn’t take me long to realize who I was listening to and that man had a really clear plan to bring Major League Soccer to Orlando.
After a lengthy lightning delay that included an impromptu U.S. Men’s National Team viewing party in UCF’s on-campus pub with the Iron Lion Firm and Ruckus, the Lions beat Houston’s ASC New Stars, 4-0.
That was the night I knew Phil was the right man for the job.
You know the rest of the story. The club found success on the field and in the stands to the point it forced MLS to take notice. Nothing felt certain at the time, but Phil navigated the churning waters of politics, business, and sports with a steady hand. He mediated crisis after crisis with a firm but understanding hand.
Like many fans, all of my interactions with Phil left me thinking that my concerns had been heard and understood. Between meetings with mayors, commissioners, and governors, Phil was walking through the stadium and the tailgate parties to spend time with the fans. In a world of dispassionate and detached owners, Phil and his front office team made Orlando feel different.
He sold soccer to the skeptical community and sold Orlando to an even more skeptical MLS. With two previous MLS clubs in Florida folding, Don Garber knew the league’s return to the South had to be exactly right. Another failure in the Sunshine State would mean soccer could be banished from the area for another generation. Phil was the right person to connect the parties and bring top level professional soccer back to Florida and the South.
I still can’t believe I spend my weekends at a soccer specific stadium in my city, supporting my own club with a group of some of my best friends. On a very personal level, Phil has made dreams come true. I am certain I’m not the only one who could make that statement.
A lot has changed since those early days. While I wouldn’t change MLS in a purpose-built stadium for USL in the Citrus Bowl, I’m allowed to still feel sentimental about those seasons. There was something anxious and exciting about the challenge of bringing MLS to Orlando. Every win, every attendance record, every trophy, every meeting felt like the most important event in those days. Our trust in Phil was paramount to all the anxious moments. Those were the days that make the idea of “built not bought” still feel so important.
I love Orlando. Behind the maligned image of tourist traps, strip mall suburbia, and the insanity that can be “Florida Man,” I know a different Orlando — one of innovation, excitement, and energy. Phil saw that Orlando too and staked his dream there. So much is written about how Phil made Orlando believe in his vision, but no one ever talks about how Phil believed in the vision Orlando already had and how his soccer club fit into that.
So, this week Phil Rawlins takes a well-earned bow and exits stage west. Best of luck to him with his new life. Phil has been a formative figure in a formative time in Orlando’s history. It seems like the club is in good hands with his philosophy ingrained into the DNA of the front office and the team off to its best MLS start in a building that has become a screaming purple fortress. Saying goodbye is never easy, but maybe now is as good a time as any for the founder to say farewell.
Thank you for taking a chance on Orlando. This place is better from the time you spent with us.
What do you think about Phil Rawlins leaving Orlando and the club he helped found? Job well done or job not done yet? Twitter: @KevinIsHistory.