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

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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.

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)