Updated 11:18 AM EST, Thu, Jan 20, 2022

MLS Betting Big on Florida Soccer, Expanding Into Orlando While Supporting David Beckham's Project

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Soccer is returning in a big way to the state of Florida with Major League Soccer (MLS) announcing on Tuesday that the Orlando City Soccer Lions will get become an expansion team for the American soccer league that will be set to play in in 2015, promoting the team from the USL-Pro League.

"Orlando was ready," said Garber at Tuesdays press conference. "They were just aggressive with how quickly they wanted to come into the league. They were engaged with detailed negotiations with the city, the county and the state. All those pieces were coming together, and we wanted to ride that wave and capture the momentum."

The Orlando City Soccer Lions, owned by Flávio Augusto da Silva--founder of the Wise Up ESL program--who will pay an estimated $70 million expansion fee to the league for membership, have been paving their way towards admittance into MLS since the team moved from Austin, Texas to Orlando in 2011. The team has built a local following - averaging 8,100 fans this past season and12,700 during their playoff run that ended with a league championship this year. Their title game - their second USL-Pro League championship, held at the Florida Citrus Bowl, drew an announced crowd of 20,866.

"It's huge. It's a momentous day for Orlando," said club President Phil Rawlins to the Orlando Sentinel. "This puts soccer on the map, not only in Orlando, but the entire Southeast. It's great for a community that believed in this dream."

The Orlando City Soccer Lions will use the Florida Citrus Bowl as their temporary home-field until they move into their $84 million downtown soccer-specific stadium set to be built in the downtown area of Orlando. Local officials worked out a deal to contribute $20 million to help build the 18,000-seat facility and help pay for 50 percent of the construction costs as well any costs overruns. Both the city of Orlando as well as Orange County have approved using tourism taxes to help fund the construction of the new downtown facility.

MLS has attempted to establish franchises in the state of Florida - the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion - but folded for a variety of reasons including owner mismanagement of the teams. Florida investors such as da Silva believes factors both in the Florida market have changed since the Mutiny and Fusion franchises folded.

"It's a different time, completely different," said Lions owner da Silva. "Soccer is exploding. Twenty-four million kids from ages 5 to 17 play soccer. It's a phenomenon."

Garber also believes that factors have changed for the league, showing incredible economic growth and expanded fan popularity far different than when the league was forced to contract in the early 2000s.

"It's a different era for the sport. Orlando City is more successful by a long shot than the MLS teams in Miami and Tampa were 10 years ago," said Garber to the Sun Sentinel. "There's been a dramatic shift in the demographics in our country and the global connections that our people have, our citizens have with the rest of the world."

The Orlando announcement comes on the heels of former L.A. Galaxy, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, David Beckham, actively looking to invest his money into an MLS expansion franchise in Miami.

Beckham, along with business manager Simon Fuller and Marcelo Claure inspected potential temporary site to use as a home-field until their investment group can find investors and a prime location for a soccer-specific facility for the team.

MLS Commissioner Garber acknowledged that Beckham and his investment group are courting Miami Heat superstar and four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Award winner LeBron James to invest in the South Beach MLS project. James' interest in the sport has grown since partnering up with Fenway Sports Group to buy a piece ownership of English Premier League team Liverpool F.C., and he has been very open about investing in Beckham's project, having developed a friendship with Beckham.

"[Beckham has] been out meeting with partners, a couple of celebrity partners," said Garber, when asked about the South Beach project. "The ownership group is coming together. They have been working to find a location for a soccer-specific stadium. If those pieces come together the way we all hope they will, then we could have a team in the next number of years in Miami, but there is still a lot of work to do on all those fronts."

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