by JAKE NUTTING
The Tampa Bay Rowdies are looking a few hours east across Interstate 4 for help in making sure their bid to join Major League Soccer is a successful one.
Rowdies Owner Bill Edwards tells EoS that he has secured the services of former Orlando City SC executives Brett Lashbrook and Forrest Eber – both who played important roles in bringing MLS to Orlando a few years ago.
“I’ve got the best people on board,” Edwards said. “I’ve got Icon. I’ve got Populous. I’ve got Manhattan. Those are all people that do stadiums. I’ve recently engaged the services of Brett Lashbrook and Forrest Eber. They’re on board with us and we feel very strongly they’ll help us a lot in what we’re trying to get accomplished. After all, they’ve done it several times before and they know MLS pretty well.”
Lashbrook in particular was a key player in Orlando winning a spot in MLS. After taking part in the expansion negotiations for New York City FC, he joined up with Orlando midway through 2013 to help that group across the finish line. Having served as special assistant to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Lashbrook also has deep connections and first-hand knowledge of what the league’s top brass is looking for. Lashbrook resigned from his position as Chief Operating Officer at the end of 2015.
Eber, who served as Orlando’s Chief Financial Officer from 2013 until he exited the team this past year, aided in organizing the financial aspect of Orlando’s MLS bid and also worked closely with the team’s youth programs in the area.
The hirings are certainly a coup for Edwards and the Rowdies. While the team only officially unveiled their MLS effort following their departure from NASL less than a month ago, the leg work has been going on behind the scenes for close to two years.
“I just didn’t instantly appear with a stadium plan or expansion plan, or decide to go to then USL and instantly decide to go to MLS,” he said. “I had conversations with MLS, with builders, with architects, with contractors for a year and half or two years now. Yes, it was something in the background. I was working, not openly necessarily, trying to get my plan together so when I did make that announcement, I’d be prepared.”
The Rowdies already have one strong selling point as one of the largest media markets without an MLS team. The fact that Edwards also controls his home stadium and has plans to privately fund expansion certainly helps as well. With discussions ongoing with brokerage companies and a handful of wealthy local investors, Edwards is confident he has enough options on the table to convince MLS he has the capability of pulling things off.
The issue of finalizing a deal to expand Al Lang Stadium still remains, however. St. Petersburg city officials are all jumping on board with Edwards’ proposal so far and the city council is already mulling the possibility of putting a lease extension up for a public vote in April or May. Any major construction project or longterm leases on the city’s waterfront must be decided on by residents. The city council is expected to decide on a date for the special election this month and public workshops on the issue of stadium expansion are likely to happen in February.
“The city council is going forward with their workshops and plans. I intend to be at one shortly,” Edwards said. “The ball is in play. We’re moving forward and that’s all you can ask. Everybody’s cooperating, from the mayor, to the city council, whomever. Now it’s up to the people to decide do they want it or not.”