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Despite SeaWolves’ Struggles MASL Maintains Belief in Orlando Market

Despite poor attendance and performance, the Major Arena Soccer League thinks the Orlando SeaWolves can still flourish in Central Florida.

Nigel G. Worrall / Orlando SeaWolves

When General Manager and Head Coach Chris Kokalis withdrew from the Orlando SeaWolves, the future of the struggling second-year Major Arena Soccer League club seemed very much in the air. The team was already finding it difficult to compete on the field and financial issues plagued the Kissimmee-based club. When Orlando’s best players started getting shipped off to other MASL teams for financial considerations, the SeaWolves’ days seemed to be numbered.

That may not necessarily be the case. In fact, the league remains committed to developing the Orlando market.

“Obviously there’s a lot of issues in Orlando that stem from Kokalis and when he left,” said MASL Director of Digital Content and Media/Public Relations Jeff Husted. “So there are some things that as a league we’re trying to step in and correct and fix as best we can.

“As a league, we had to do some soul searching too. Is this a good market? Is this something that’s worth salvaging? There’s a group of owners — they came down and they took a look at it that first weekend (after Kokalis left). We do think it’s a good market. We just think there were a lot of things done incorrectly. And we think there is a good future for arena soccer in the Orlando/Kissimmee area. There are going to be a lot of changes.”

One of the first tasks was to replace Kokalis as the team’s head coach. Inaugural season coach Tom Traxler returned to guide the team for the remainder of the 2019-2020 MASL campaign.

The next step was to investigate the market further. Never properly marketed in the area or particularly well attended — at most home games it doesn’t take long to look around Silver Spurs Arena and count up the fans in the seats — the SeaWolves were in dire straits when Kokalis left. There were money issues, players had lost confidence in the organization, and the league was left in a difficult position. The Orlando franchise needed immediate financial investment and the MASL needed to find out if the Orlando market was a viable one for the league.

MASL officials, including Rochester Lancers owner Salvatore “Soccer Sam” Fantauzzo, did their due diligence on the SeaWolves and found that the market was worth salvaging as a host for professional indoor soccer. So, the league committed to helping the SeaWolves survive.

“The two majority investors are two of our bigger and more successful owners in the league,” Husted said. “And if they say “yeah, we can make this work,” then as a league we’ve got to take a look at that.”

Unlike with the folding of a team in Canada at the start of the season, the MASL found that there was an adequate support framework in place to salvage the SeaWolves for the 2019-2020 season and the league will then decide on the best course of action moving forward, whether that means additional investment for things like marketing, a new direction for the club, or some other as-yet-undetermined plan.

“We’re not giving up on Canada (either) but we just didn’t have any kind of framework to continue the season there,” Husted pointed out.

In the fallout of Kokalis leaving the SeaWolves, fans have been upset with a number of key players moving on without Orlando receiving talent in return. With several important players no longer having trust in the SeaWolves organization, the MASL allowed them to go elsewhere in return for financial considerations. Popular players like Richard Schmermund, Joshio Sandoval, Thiago Freitas, Derek Huffman, and Mario Alvarez were among those who went to other teams in return for financial considerations rather than for equivalent-level players.

“Obviously with some of the players the trust was lost in the market, in the team, and everything. We did the best we could by the players and the market,” said Husted. “The players that left — we let them leave if they wanted to leave, but still made sure there was a way to make the club whole for that. That’s what the financial considerations were.”

One rather odd player move was the case of Victor France. Reports of France signing with the Baltimore Blast in the off-season became confusing to fans because he eventually played a match with Orlando before moving to Baltimore. Husted said that was simply a solution to an immigration paperwork issue.

“The way the visa process works is you’re visa-tied to your employer,” explained Husted. “When [France] left to go to Baltimore, they had a certain time that they could file for a change of employer or they could just apply for a brand new visa. The time limit on them originally filing for a change of employer passed and the process as we’re seeing it was getting more strict for applying for a new visa. Since he still had a valid visa for Orlando, he had to work for Orlando and then he could be traded back.”

By doing it this way, France can work for his new employer — the Blast — while his new paperwork is in motion.

Husted said that the MASL’s plague of player immigration issues has been getting harder to overcome in recent years as U.S. rules become more strict, but the league has tried to address that by hiring new immigration specialists and the process is expected to get better.

But getting back to the future of the Orlando SeaWolves, fans have every right to be upset with the way the 2019-2020 season has unfolded and to question whether the club will continue.

Husted said the investment in the SeaWolves is there to get the club through this year and the current investors will evaluate after the season whether they will want to continue on, add to their group, or turn it over to new investors. He also said the team is searching for opportunities to grow in the Orlando market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the SeaWolves would stay at Silver Spurs Arena. It’s entirely possible the team could move out of that venue and play elsewhere in 2020-2021.

“We’re actively searching for future opportunities there,” Husted said. “The long-term goal is to keep the team moving forward, whether it’s with this current group (of investors) or a new group.”

In the meantime, why should fans show up to see the SeaWolves in person? Husted said the league is committed to doing things to ensure fans have a good experience at Silver Spurs Arena, even though the quality of the team has not been up to expectations this season. There’s never any guarantee of success on the field, but there is an effort in place to give fans a reason to turn up to support the SeaWolves.

“As far as season ticket (holders) and everything like that, there’s going to be a lot of promotions, and a lot of things to get fans there cheap or free all season long,” he said “It’s good entertainment. So going there and being there and enjoying it...I think there’s value there.”