[Ed. Note: Jeff Leadbeater, our copy editor at The Mane Land, has been on the leading edge of club news from its foundation. In this article, he shares some of his memories of the club’s formation.]
On Thursday, March 4, 2010, I got permission from my workplace to leave early, and went downtown to a press conference. The presser was for the announcement by the United Soccer Leagues (USL) of an expansion franchise in Orlando.
It would be the latest attempt by the USL to bring pro soccer to Orlando. Previous attempts in the 1990s didn’t work. But with the tightening of social media, the disparate fan groups were finally beginning to gel and were crying out for a team of their own.
While there, I personally discussed matters with USL President Tim Holt and ownership group president Steve Donner. Several members of the local amateur team, the Central Florida Kraze (which would ally with the ownership group and eventually be bought outright by Orlando City), were also in attendance.
I was at the forefront of that movement.
The group I led with Adam Soucie, Orlando Soccer Supporters Club, was formed the previous year—mostly as a social club. I brought my experience as a supporter for the Houston Dynamo at the time; a card-carrying member of the Texian Army who stood with them at the 2007 MLS Cup.
The original USL expansion club was in flux. The owner, Gary Rosenbach, was sketchy. For his part, Donner was infamous for financial issues with his previous soccer club, the Rochester Rhinos. They tried to bring indoor lacrosse to Orlando by moving a team from New York City for the 2010 season. While the Orlando Titans did well in the stands (I went to several games myself, and they usually filled the lower bowl of Amway Arena; they averaged about 6,900 per game, on-par with what the Solar Bears do now), they did not make it to a 2011 season.
On top of that, the USL itself was on shaky ground, at least as far as its pro divisions were concerned. Several USL First Division teams revolted over a sale of the organization, among other things, and formed their own second-tier soccer league. The resultant legal shenanigans led to the U.S. Soccer Federation itself stepping in and running the second tier in 2010.
Eventually, the situation would sort itself out. The revolt group would take the second tier (eventually buying the North American Soccer League trademark for the league name), while the USL would merge its First Division and Second Division (the second and third tiers of the U.S. soccer league system at the time) into a new third-tier league, USL Pro.
As for Orlando, there was a period where we heard very little new from Steve Donner. Rosenbach would eventually disappear entirely. But something new came out of the blue on Oct. 28, 2010.
While we knew Steve Donner was looking at an alliance with a Barclay’s Premier League club as early as that April, even that didn’t prepare us for what was to come. Because it was on that day that it was announced Phil Rawlins, owner of the USL First Division team in Austin, was taking over the Orlando expansion franchise, which would be renamed Orlando City Soccer Club.
Officially, the Austin Aztex folded, and Orlando City was a new club. But the club infrastructure came to us in its entirety, from owner Rawlins, to manager Adrian Heath, to some of its players at the time, including goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo and midfielder Yordany Alvarez.
The team’s mascot was the Lions. The minor-league team would draw on Rawlins’ English heritage with a logo representing the “Three Lions” of England. It would also begin to build a unique identity by prominently utilizing the color purple—a color connected to royalty.
That BPL alliance, it turned out, was with Stoke City F.C.
Rawlins hired Soucie to be the team’s communications director, a position he held to mid-2012. At the time, I didn’t want to run a supporters’ group on my own. So I merged OSSC with Orlando Odyssey, a Lake County-based group run by Dan and Lori Conlee.
That group would become The Ruckus, Orlando’s first supporters’ club.
Phil Rawlins had big dreams. He wanted to run a Major League Soccer franchise, and he saw Orlando as a perfect storm brewing. But first, he had to build a proven fan base. And before that, he had to build a successful team. He understood that on-field success out of the gate would improve chances of success in general in America.
Only time would tell if his gamble would pay off.
As for Steve Donner, he would eventually disappear from the picture as well. I last saw him personally at a preseason match at Rollins College in 2011.