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Orlando City took challenging path to MLS all-star spotlight

Orlando City majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva has promised to host the best Major League Soccer All-Star Game.

The city of Orlando skyline peeks over the east side of Exploria Stadium. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. —  Orlando City majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva has promised to host the best Major League Soccer All-Star Game.

The pledge is consistent with the Lions’ ambitious spirit. During their fifth year in MLS, Orlando City leaders are pushing to deliver results on the field that match the passion throughout the club and community.

“It’s not just a game, it’s a week of celebration,” Orlando City CEO Alex Leitão said. “It’s a way to celebrate soccer; it’s a way to show our platform to our fans and to the community. It’s a time to show what soccer is capable of and having that in our backyard for a week is phenomenal.”

Hosting the MLS All-Star Game is the culmination of an arduous journey for Orlando City.

Despite its initial frenzy of fan support, a series of unexpected expenses, ambitious expansion efforts and unfortunate personnel decisions caused the Lions to flounder on the field, posting only one winning season during their four years in the league. Team leaders are confident Orlando City is heading in the right direction under coach James O’Connor and will earn its first playoff bid later this year.

Through it all, MLS commissioner Don Garber still sees Orlando City SC as a model franchise.

Although Garber told Pro Soccer USA he will not be announcing any new expansion teams this week in Orlando, MLS will soon add new franchises. And whenever Garber meets with new city leaders or ownership groups eager to join the league, he sends them to one place for advice — Orlando City.

“Orlando set the blueprint of how a team can connect the dots between a number of really key elements that help establish a new team in a market,” Garber said. “While they’ve had some struggles on the field, I still am very impressed with what the team has done. They have played a very important role in the overall growth of our league. It’s why we’re bringing the all-star game there [and] it’s why I continue to be proud of this club.”

Timing is everything. That’s what Leitão believes when he reflects on the team’s initial bid to join MLS.

In 2015, Orlando City paid $70 million to enter the league.

The current expansion fees have rocketed to $150 million. That number jumped to $100 million by the time that New York City FC bid to enter the league and LAFC most recently dropped $110 million to secure its expansion rights.

To executives across the league, the rising buy-in costs are a positive reflection of the growth of MLS under Garber.

“The league is growing and it’s great; it’s really good news,” Leitão said. “It felt like we [made] the right decision, so we’re happy with the way we are growing, happy with the way the game is growing [and] the league is growing. We feel like this is just the beginning.”

As the value of American soccer continues to climb, Orlando City has also benefited from the boom of the sport’s popularity. After selling a minority stake earlier this year, the team is now valued at $490.53 million, almost doubling since Forbes valued it at $240 million in 2016.

While the value of the club soars, Orlando City has loaded up on expenses.

When state politicians grew resistant to subsidizing sports facility construction, da Silva chose to pay back the city for its initial investment in stadium land and finance the venue on his own.

Although assistance from investors and tax credits for constructing in impoverished neighborhoods helped to cut the cost, it was a risky decision — one that Garber calls “courageous.” The stadium quickly created a substantial financial burden for a young team already committed to investing heavily in the pursuit of players such as Kaká.

After pouring money into the privately financed stadium, Orlando City announced the addition of both the Orlando Pride, which competes in the National Women’s Soccer League, and Orlando City B, which is part of the United Soccer League.

It was the only expansion club to ever add two affiliate teams this quickly. Soon afterward, the club announced the addition of its academy system and the construction of new training facilities.

These investments meant heavy spending early on with the hope of output in future years for the club.

“I think that [the club] has made deep financial commitments to build a high performing sporting enterprise for the future,” Garber said. “Yes, they are having some challenges on the field in the short term, but I believe their investment in the academy, in the USL team and their investment in the Pride will help create a significant presence for the club in a really large region of the country. When you’re spreading yourself across a wide variety of strategic initiatives, it can be challenging, but I think long term those are going to pay off for them.”

Orlando City ranks No. 10 in MLS in player salaries, but there is a perception the Lions aren’t big spenders because of their vast investments elsewhere.

There are a few reasons the investment hasn’t translated to more wins.

The Lions’ top-paid athletes have rarely competed at a high level at the same time and the entire roster has had difficulty, at times, adapting to two coaching changes.

While MLS All-Star Nani continues to dazzle with a team-best eight goals and seven assists this season, the club’s other two designated players hardly made an impact. Midfielder Josué Colmán has been on loan to his Paraguayan club since June after netting one goal during the 2018 season. Plagued with injuries, forward Dom Dwyer has only started seven times this season.

“When you’re making a substantial signing and spending a lot of money on a player, there are so many unknowns that you can’t account for,” former MLS player and Fox Sports analyst Stu Holden said. “The pieces don’t always match up how you hoped they would. It’s not as easy as it might seem.”

With several of its highest-salaried players underperforming, Orlando City has gotten a boost from younger players Chris Mueller, Tesho Akindele, Benji Michel and Santiago Patiño.

In many ways, former player and local TV analyst Miguel Gallardo believes this is a testament to the team’s investment in building from the bottom up.

“One of the things that we used to say here at Orlando when we first started is that this club is made not bought,” Gallardo said. “This is a team effort, it truly is.”

Although Gallardo believes adversity has begun to shape the club’s culture in a positive way, a nagging question still remains in the Lions’ fifth season — can Orlando City reach the playoffs and contend for an MLS championship?

It’s a question for MLS as much as for Orlando. The league’s early identity rested on the concept that any team in any market had an honest shot at winning the MLS Cup. As the league expands, that concept becomes less probable.

Teams such as LAFC and Atlanta United have made it clear that deep pockets can deliver wins within a club’s first year in the league. Orlando City has shown its willingness to spend similar amounts of money, but a mix of coaching changes and personnel challenges have limited success.

For Orlando City, the challenge is to build on O’Connor’s success and deliver a consistent high level of performance each year.

“I feel like we’re playing beautiful football, other than maybe one or two games this year,” Leitão said. “The rest feel like we play well. Even when we lose, win and tie, we play good football.”

Regardless of the team’s record, Garber hopes MLS All-Star Week will give Orlando a chance to celebrate its success.

“We see ourselves as the league for a new America, and Orlando City is the perfect illustration of that,” Garber said. “It bodes well for what I think will be an even better future for the club, for the city and for Major League Soccer.”

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