MIAMI — After reaching an agreement in August, Orlando City SC and German Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg wanted to find the perfect place to announce their new partnership. They decided on SoccerEx, the massive soccer convention held this week in Miami.
Orlando City general manager Niki Budalic and Wolfsburg head of corporate development Felix Welling announced the new relationship Friday morning at Marlins Park. The collaboration will include sharing players and best practices, as well friendly matches and combined marketing and sponsorship opportunities for the men’s and women’s teams.
“The football side is the core of it, and I think it’s the main driver for an authentic partnership between the clubs,” Welling said. “We are longing to find the first steps for exchanging players from Orlando to Wolfsburg, because here in the U.S. you have a long offseason, and then we can help you with our infrastructure and training sessions in Germany. But also, we have a lot of talented players who are on the verge of going into the Bundesliga, but they need some development and some other things to see while they’re on their way to be professional players. We think the MLS, especially Orlando, both the men’s team and women’s team, have the best fundament for developing youth players who can make it in the Bundesliga afterward.”
Welling said after finding success in Germany with 20 consecutive years playing in the top-tier Bundesliga, Wolfsburg is working on an international strategy to reach its core markets of the United States, Mexico and China. In doing so, he believes finding the right partners is crucial.
Orlando City already had a relationship with Wolfsburg sporting director and former player Marcel Schäfer, who joined the United Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2017 for a brief stint after a decade with Wolfsburg.
“Having direct contact and that relationship already in place is one of the most exciting parts of the partnership,” Budalic said. “Ironically, we tried to scout and recruit him to our first team while he was a player, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”
Welling has visited Orlando City three times to become familiar with the club and its facilities, and Budalic said he and Orlando City coach James O’Connor are planning a trip to Wolfsburg Dec. 18.
“I think the No. 1 way is sharing best practices,” Budalic said of how to get value out of the relationship. “For me, that’s where I get the most value. Every time you visit these partner clubs, every time you go you learn something. German clubs are known to be so well run and professional.
“I think the player exchange is vital for us. I think the opportunity for younger players, in particular, to go over and learn and be in that environment, I think, is vital.”
Both clubs are building new training facilities in 2019, and Welling said they will work together on the plans for those and on how to organize their youth academies.
As for when a friendly match might take place, Budalic said they’ve already talked about “some preseason trip either in July or the winter break.”
“Wolfsburg already has shown the ambition to come to florida; They were part of the Florida Cup. So, I think it’s highly likely,” he added.
Both Budalic and Welling emphasized the importance of their women’s teams in bringing the partnership to fruition.
“When picking the partnership with the club of Orlando, it was a very important thing for us that they have the same understanding of football, soccer, both men’s and women’s sides,” Welling said. “We invest a lot in women’s football infrastructure, of course.”
Said Budalic: “The fact that our seasons overlap presents an opportunity for our women to go and train in Germany. So, this will help give opportunities for our women’s players to continue their development.”
Wolfsburg’s goal is to continue growing its network in the United States. The club already has an office in New York, and Welling said it hopes to open an office in Florida in the coming years, “but it is not planned yet.”
“In Wolfsburg, already we are running very successful international sponsorship programs and we have partners from the U.S., Mexico and Canada already,” Welling said. “Of course, we want to grow our network and bring them here to Orlando, bring them in contact with other companies to grow the network of them as well.”