Orlando City Soccer, New York City FC primed to make Major League Soccer debuts

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ORLANDO, Florida — When Phil Rawlins purchased the minor league Austin Aztex and moved the team to Orlando in 2010, he had the ambiguous goal of growing it into a Major League Soccer franchise within five years.

In a city known for its theme parks and palm trees, he shared with anyone who would lend an ear to this thick British accent his dreams of one day transforming the place known as "The City Beautiful" into the "Soccer Capital of the South."

This weekend Rawlins hopes will be the first step in making that a reality.

Orlando City Soccer hosts fellow MLS newcomer New York City FC Sunday afternoon in one of the final games in the opening weekend of the league's 20th anniversary season. Lions' officials announced earlier this week it had sold out of 62,000 tickets at Citrus Bowl Stadium for the debut of the league's 19th and 20th franchises.

Kaka, the former AC Milan star who signed as Orlando's first designated player, said he's expecting "an amazing day."

"I've had very special moments in my career and I think Sunday will be one of these — because it's historic: The first game of this club, the people that will be here, the crowd and the supporters — for everybody," he said.

NYCFC becomes New York's second MLS club, joining the New York Red Bulls, which plays its home games in New Jersey.

NYCFC will play at Yankee Stadium, and is owned by the Yankees and City Football Group, which also owns Premier League side Manchester City. The team is led by former Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, who spent much of last year in England studying with the parent club.

While Sunday's match will be at the football-built Citrus Bowl, it will only be a temporary setup for Orlando City, which will move to a new 19,500-seat downtown stadium for the 2016 season.

Negotiations between owners and players on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement nearly derailed the start of what is easily one of the most important years for MLS's future.

Rawlins was optimistic throughout the process, and said he doesn't think it will affect the anticipation for Sunday or the rest of the season.

"We're here —(Orlando City majority owner) Flavio (da SIlva), myself, the team — is here for generations to come," said Rawlins, who now serves as team president. "This is not about a weekend, or a week or a month. It's about the future of the game in this country. Of where this game is going and where the great city of Orlando is going with this franchise.

"I think when we look back on this in 20 or 30 years' time, people will forget that there was even a CBA negotiation going on this week. Our view is the long view."

It is also one shared by the Lions' players.

Midfielder Amobi Akugo served as one of the Lions' two player representatives during CBA negotiations, calling it "an eye-opening experience." He said this one was pivotal for the long-term health of the league.

"Every time there's a CBA, it's always a big year," he said. "The league is growing and I feel like the players want to grow at the same rate as the league."

The behind-the-scenes squabbling hasn't affected either Orlando City's or NYCFC's season ticket sales. Orlando City has sold more than 13,000 of its 14,000 cap for the season. NYCFC announced that it had surpassed 14,000 last week, with more than 60 percent of those going to people who were first time season ticket purchasers in any sport.

In addition, Orlando City has nearly sold out of the 20,000 capacity it set for their second game March 21 against Vancouver.

"My mindset and my vision now is beyond Sunday," Rawlins said. "It's on the Vancouver game and two or three games after that. Because that shows us really what the ceiling is, or what the cap is this market's interest in soccer. The truth is we don't know that yet."


Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

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