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Orlando City stadium approved, expected to land MLS expansion team

Orlando is set to become the 21st MLS team after securing funding for a new stadium.

Mark Thorstenson

Orlando City SC is set to join MLS after the Orange County Commissioners voted to direct $20 million toward the construction of a new soccer-specific stadium, completing the funding necessary for the facility. The county voted 5-2 in favor of funding the stadium, securing the final $20 million needed to build a 20,000-seat venue for the team. With MLS president Mark Abbott saying on Monday that Orlando will be awarded a team shortly after a stadium deal is completed, the Lions can now safely call themselves the league's next expansion club.

Now that the stadium funding is secured, Orlando City and MLS will work to complete the paperwork finalizing the club's entrance to the league. President and owner Phil Rawlins has estimated that it will take 30 days for that to happen, setting the stage for Orlando to join MLS, possibly as soon as 2015.

MLS announced that it planned to expand to 24 clubs by 2020, which meant that four new clubs would be awarded on top of New York City FC, an expansion team set to join the league in 2015. Orlando is the first of those four expansion teams and MLS's first foray into the southeast since the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny folded in 2001, leaving the league without a presence in the region. Miami, as well as Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Sacramento have all expressed interest in being among the three other new clubs.

Orlando City was founded as a USL team in 2010 after Rawlins moved his USL team from Austin, Texas to Orlando. The team has since won two league championships while Rawlins has, not so quietly, chased a MLS team. His bid got a major boost when he was able to bring more people into his ownership group, including Flavio Augusto da Silva, who became the majority owner, although Rawlins continues to be a part of the group and serves as team president.

After Rawlins diversified his ownership and gave it the capital necessary to get a MLS team, the last remaining hurdle to getting a MLS club was building a stadium. The team currently plays in the Citrus Bowl, but it has been deemed too big and not suitable for a MLS team, so Orlando City worked towards getting their own facility. Their first attempt at funding failed when the state refused to provide public funds, but a new plan, featuring the city and the county was drawn up.

The city of Orlando was always supportive of the plan and voted to approve $20 million for the new stadium. That left just the county's contribution to secure funding for the building, money that would come from tourism funds that can only be used for tourism-related projects. There was some doubt that the country would approve the funding, but eventually they did, albeit barely as the five votes were the minimum threshold for it to pass with the super majority required by the county laws.

The stadium vote was part of a package that will also fund phase two of the performing arts center and renovations to the Citrus Bowl. The Lions' new stadium is budgeted at $84 million, with the city providing $20 million, the county providing the same and the team paying for the rest. Had the county not agreed to fund its portion, the stadium deal likely would have fallen apart and the future of MLS in Orlando would have been left in flux.

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