Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez said there is a bit of deja vu when he looks back at his brief tenure with Orlando City SC two years ago.
“The buzz about (Major League Soccer) was strong even then,” Lopez said. “We were getting big crowds. They treated their players well and it was a good environment.
“I see a lot of similarities to what was going on there then and what is happening in Sacramento now.”
Lopez played the final two months of the 2012 season for Orlando City.
They had record-setting USL Pro crowds and an attractive, winning team built by a charismatic coach in Adrian Heath, a former English Premier League player and manager. They had a visionary founder in Phil Rawlins, who built a strong front-office staff to sell the organization and the community on his dream of playing in MLS.
“They were never quiet or shy about it,” said Orlando City defender Rob Valentino, who grew up in Danville and joined the team in 2010 when it moved from Austin, Texas, to Florida. “They spelled it out. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to MLS by 2015.
“We were with it as players. We knew we could help it along by playing well on the field.”
This season it’s Republic FC that’s shattering the USL Pro regular-season attendance records that Orlando City once held and doing it with a team that plays creative soccer under Preki, the former MLS star and coach.
It’s a team that could still challenge front-running Orlando City for this year’s playoff championship after it played the Lions to an emotional 0-0 draw on Thursday at Bonney Field.
Since Lopez left Orlando City, the Lions found a wealthy backer in Brazilian Flavio Augusto da Silva and forged a private-public partnership to build a $110 million, 19,500-seat downtown stadium. MLS selected Orlando City as its 21st franchise late last year and it departs USL Pro after this season.
Sacramento’s ownership group, led by founder Warren Smith, has paid close attention to the blueprint that Orlando City has followed in reaching the MLS and credits them for providing invaluable assistance.
Smith said this season has been about establishing a strong brand, the type that might attract deep-pocketed investors who could help pay the MLS franchise fee – Orlando City’s entry reportedly is $70 million – and for a soccer-specific stadium.
They have admirers in Orlando City, where some see parallels between the two cities. Both have similar-sized metro areas, television markets and demographics. Orlando ranked No. 5 and Sacramento No. 7 for U.S. television viewership of ABC’s Germany-Argentina World Cup championship match.
“We have been paying attention to what they’ve been doing since day one,” said Orlando City assistant coach Ian Fuller, who led the Lions against Republic FC in place of Heath, who is in Europe. “We knew it was a good market. They’ve done extremely well and people are paying attention. We’re very excited for Sacramento and their organization.”
Entering Thursday’s match, Republic FC was averaging a USL Pro-leading 14,587, nearly 10,000 more than second-place Orlando City, which is playing this season in the 5,000-seat ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex while its home Citrus Bowl is undergoing a $200 million renovation, mainly for football reasons.
It took Orlando City SC three years to win MLS approval; Republic FC may not have as long a time frame if the current 19-team MLS sticks to its expansion plan of 24 teams by 2024.
New York, Orlando City and Atlanta are already in. Miami has been promised a franchise, contingent on building a stadium. Minneapolis, which is building a new football-soccer stadium to open in 2016, is considered to be the front runner, though there may be a tug-of-war between ownership groups there.
“The goal is to present something to MLS in the very near future,” Smith said. “MLS has told us to keep doing what we’re doing.”