Sellout crowds are the aim for Orlando City, as a new downtown stadium awaits.

Sit down with Orlando City SC: Taking on Beckham, emulating the Timbers and Kaka in 2015 – Part I


Last week after all the rigmarole and hype had subsided somewhat, I got the chance to speak with two of the leading lights of Major League Soccer’s newest franchise.

Chatting away with Co-owner and President of Orlando City Soccer Club Phil Rawlins and current head coach Adrian Heath, I got the sense that these guys are only at the beginning of an incredible journey as they aim to take MLS and soccer in North America by storm.

Since relocating the team from Austin, Texas to Orlando in 2011 and blitzing their way to two USL Pro titles in recent years, Orlando City were finally confirmed as MLS’ 21st franchise on November 19.

With a new 20,000 capacity soccer-specific stadium in downtown Orlando signed and sealed, plus a plan in place to eventually  become MLS’ best side, Rawlins and Heath have a busy time ahead of them. But that’s not to say the journey they’ve been on thus far hasn’t taken plenty of time and effort as paperwork, funding and red-tape has held them up.

(MORE: Orlando City SC confirms they will be next MLS franchise)

Finally they’ve reached the promised land and now they’re in MLS, that’s only the beginning.

I was about to find that out, as I spoke with the two Brits who are aiming to transform soccer in Central Florida and, in time, the U.S.

source: Getty Images
David Beckham is trying to the big guns involved in bringing MLS to Miami. Orlando City would love their Floridian rival to join the party.

On any doubt about making it to MLS:

PR: I never really doubted it would happen to be honest with you. We’ve always known that there’s some twists and turns along the way and some bumps in the road that we’d have to navigate. I’ve never really had a doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t happen at some point. It was just a case of how quickly could we make it happen and how quickly could we get into the league to start playing. That was our focus, our ultimate goal was to get in at the start of 2015 if at all possible. We’ve achieved that, so we’re delighted.

On Miami potentially getting an MLS franchise:

AH: I think you only have to look at the Pacific Northwest to see what rivalry will bring to the table. If you look at Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, the rivalry is incredible and it’s captured the imagination of everyone… not just soccer fans. The atmosphere resonates to everybody. If we could do something likewise with Miami and there’s talk about Atlanta and one or two other places, who is to say we couldn’t generate the same sort of rivalry?

In world soccer, that is the thing that drives a lot of it: derby games.

On being the focal point and ‘trailblazers’ of soccer in the Southeast:

PR: I think we very much do [see themselves as trailblazers]. This is a very good market place, a young growing city, it’s got a great demographic for soccer. The average age is 34, right in the target of MLS. We see ourselves as being somewhat trailblazers but we love being the pioneers, we set our own standards. We have done for many, many years. We’ve looked to set a new bar for soccer not only in the Southeast but across MLS.

If we’re successful, which we know we will be, that will only just create more and more interest in market places locally and like Adrian said hopefully fuel those rivalries and derby games to come.

On emulating any current expansion sides in MLS:

source: Getty Images
Emulating the match day experience on display at JELD-WEN Field is something high on Orlando’s to-o list.

AH: I’ve always liked the way Salt Lake play, I think they play the game the right way. I like what Sporting have done and I think you have to take your hat off to what Caleb Porter has done in his first year at Portland. They try and play football the right way, they play at a high tempo and high energy game, which is something that I think supporters enjoy. In terms of on the field, if we could do what Sporting have been doing since they moved into the new stadium and play like Salt Lake and get the atmosphere that Portland get… we’ve crossed all three boxes!

On playing philosophy and what type of player Orlando will bring in:

AH: I think it will be a bit of a mixture of all the things you’ve just mentioned [big name DPs, top college recruits and players from their own academy]. The ownership group, Phil and Flavio, have never made any secret that they want to bring in a big time player when we arrive. Obviously the name out their all the time is Kaka, whether it’s Kaka or somebody else, it will be somebody of that ilk we think. But certainly, since we’ve been here, we’ve been working hard in our own way behind the scenes with the academy. We think we’re starting to make inroads there. We’ve got four of our kids now in the U.S. development pool. We’re trying to do a bit of everything and we know we’re going to have to being players in from college because that’s where we will get the bulk of our squad from, or certainly within the league.

So overall, it’s a little bit of everything. Ultimately it’s about putting a team together, young, old or whatever, we just want to make sure on the opening day we’re going to be competitive from day one.

source: Getty Images
Kaka is a player constantly linked with Orlando City, the club says a DP of his caliber will arrive in 2015.

On any potential link up with Stoke City in the future:

PR: We don’t have a formal relationship with Stoke. The connection obviously runs deeps because I’m a part-owner of Stoke and I’ve been a director at Stoke for 14 years now. Adrian is of course an ex-player and began his career there. We have deep, emotional connections to the club, we don’t have a formal contract so we won’t be looking at bringing players in from loan there. What it does give us, through Adrian, myself and Flavio’s business colleagues in South America, it gives us a great network to tap into to bring the very best of those marketplaces here.

The relationships we have there is worth a lot, so we will look to exploit those and make the very most of them and bring the very best talent that we can and then marry that with the best local talent.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).