Today owner Phil Rawlins of the Austin Aztex officially announced that he was moving the team to Orlando, Florida to compete in the D3 USL Pro League. Rawlins, who has an ownership stake in the EPL team Stoke City, will be joined in his Orlando ownership group by English Championshp team Burnley owner Brendan Flood, and Dan Williams. Steve Donner, who was once an executive with the Rochester Rhinos, will be the CEO of the new club christened Orlando City SC. Rawlins also stated that the new organization will look to move up to MLS in three or four years.
Rawlins, an English-born businessman, launched the Austin Aztex in 2008. They played their first season in the USL’s PDL before joining USL-1 as an expansion team for the 2009 season. After winning only five games in 2009, the Aztex experienced a remarkable turnaround under Coach Adrian Heath while playing in the USSF D2 in 2010, tripling their win total of the year before while leading the league in scoring and finishing second to the Rochester Rhinos in points during the regular season. The Aztex’ success on the field was mirrored by a 25% increase in attendance at their House Park facility in 2010.
Although British soccer clubs have very rarely moved from city to city in over 120 years of professional soccer, Mr. Rawlins was quick to pick up on the ways of American sports owners. Instead of wrangling with the city of Austin for years for a better stadium situation like Charlie Finley did to Kansas City for his A’s ballclub in the 1960s, Rawlins chose as his model the late Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts NFL owner Robert Irsay, who moved the Colts overnight to Indianapolis. Rawlins’ intentions on moving the Aztex to Orlando were reported by highly regarded Inside Minnesota Soccer blogger Brian Quarstad last Friday, so that Rawlins couldn’t quite pull off an Irsay repeat. Aztex supporters thus had a full three days to prepare for the inevitable. Lucky them.
The reactions of Austin soccer fans on Inside Minnesota Soccer comments sections and Big Soccer forums shows that the Aztex’ supporters were caught totally by surprise and felt betrayed by Rawlins, who gave no indication of his intentions to relocate his team. After a 2010 season that was an outstanding success on the field and seeing D2 soccer’s largest increase in attendance, Aztex supporters fully eagerly anticipated the 2011 season and more success and growth. Unfortunately, Mr. Rawlins has taken that opportunity from them. Another growing U.S. soccer market has now been burned by a USL owner. Like Sherman’s march through Georgia, USL owners have left a smoldering landscape of potential soccer markets lying in their wake as they move on to another franchise fee. Their 75% franchise failure rate at the D2 level is certainly an example of their business acumen.
Of course Mr. Rawlins is free to do what he wants with his soccer club. The move to D3 should save him a bundle in travel expenses, as the USLPro League is, as currently structured, an East Coast league. That must have been the reason that Rochester Rhinos owner Rob Clark self-demoted the Rhinos, the regular season points leader in USSF D2 in 2010, to the D2 USL Pro League today for the 2011 season. Clark, who was subject to a lawsuit by USL owners last season before the USSF smoothed things over, now may be subject to lawsuit by NASL owners due to his possible breach of contract. More loveliness.
The sad fact is that it’s not even the off-season yet in USSF D2. The second leg of the USSF D2 Championship series, featuring first-leg winner the Puerto Rico Islanders and the Carolina RailHawks, won’t be concluded until next Saturday. With no word as of yet concerning D2 sanctioning from the USSF, and uncertain franchises in Minnesota and St. Louis, it looks like another winter of ‘As the Stomach Turns’ for North American soccer fans.
My only hope is that the deserving fans of Austin get another professional soccer team soon. But such a new franchise would start behind the eight-ball, having to first undo the betrayal of trust in the Austin community created by Rawlins. Thanks, Phil. I guess this is Britain’s karmic payback for American Tom Hicks ugly ownership rein in Liverpool.
For more about Orlando City SC CEO Steve Donner, check Devo’s blog from March… http://blogs.democratandchronicle.com/devo/2010/03/04/melt-with-me-snow-removed-at-stadium/