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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Juventus bumped by Atalanta at the death

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Juventus is still in firm control of the Serie A title race, but they were dealt a slight setback as Atalanta secured a 2-2 draw with a dramatic 89th minute equalizer in Bergamo.

Dani Alves had given Juventus the lead in the 83rd minute on a header after a brilliant far-post cross by Miralem Pjanic, but Remo Freuler answered late as he grabbed a point.

The goal came on a fortunate bounce as Pjanic and substitute Stephen Lichtensteiner got tangled up on the ball and failed to clear, and the ball squirted to Freuler who suddenly found himself free in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus keeper came off his line to smother the chance, but he failed to completely collect, and the ball again popped free. Freuler followed up the loose ball, and with a trio of Juventus defenders flying in, the 25-year-old Swiss attacker knocked it in.

The draw was deserving for Atalanta, who had controlled the game for much of the first half, and went ahead just seconds before the break on a goal by Andrea Conti. Atalanta outshot Juventus 7-4 in the first half, 3-1 on shots on target. Juventus took over control in the second half, and got back on level terms just five minutes after the break as Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola put one in his own net.

Alves’ goal put Juventus in front, but that lead only lasted six minutes. Juventus goes nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with the draw, but Roma has the chance to cut that to six if they can beat Lazio at home on Sunday.

MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.

Argentina closes in on Sampaoli, according to FA boss

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The Argentinian FA is hoping to convince Jorge Sampaoli to abandon Sevilla and take the opening in his home nation.

President Claudio Tapia confirmed that Sampaoli is their top target, calling the 57-year-old their “chosen one” in an interview with ESPN.

“We have chosen a coach that has a contract,” Tapia told ESPN. “We want to be respectful and wait because he has a release clause which is once the tournament ends. We will communicate it to the club and we will sit down and negotiate his departure and release clause. We want things to go well in the final games he has left.”

Argentina dismissed coach Edgardo Bauza after the country fell to fifth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification following defeats to Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile over the past six months.

Sampaoli is under contract with Sevilla until the summer of 2018, but has a $1.6 million release clause, to which Tapia was referring. Sevilla sits in fourth position in the La Liga table, level on points with Atletico Madrid but behind significantly on goal differential. The club finishes its league season on May 21st against Osasuna, and Argentina’s next game is a friendly on June 9th at home against Brazil. The next World Cup qualifier is in August against Uruguay.

Samapoli has been with Sevilla since since last summer in his first European club job, but the Argentinian has ample experience to take over for his home country. He managed Chile for four years, winning the 2015 Copa America in Chile. He resigned in early 2016 due to a contract dispute, paying a heavy price to do so as he gave up bonuses to wriggle free of his contract.

Argentina’s desire to secure Sampaoli as coach is nothing new, as the man himself confirmed an offer for the job a week ago, but said he would not consider it until the end of the season. It appears now that a deal is likely, and he will have a very short turnaround to get his first look at the team against a fierce continental rival.