Florida is a national punching bag. We all know this. We’ve all come to accept it.
I won’t insult your intelligence by trying to convince you that Florida is a utopia. It’s got problems and its fair share of freak shows. In my eyes there is no need to single out Florida when there is ample absurdity spread across the majestic mess that is America. How, when, or why this particular perception about Florida is a discussion for another time and website. Let’s just stick to soccer.
The Sunshine State’s reputation when it comes to professional soccer has also taken some flack over the years. The region was home to likely the truest and most intense rivalry of the original NASL with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Back then the Florida Derby featured star players like Rodney Marsh and George Best, yet today it is overshadowed by those who choose to only look back at the old league through Cosmos tinted glasses.
In the 90s MLS tried to kick-start soccer with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion but ultimately ended up doing more harm than good. The league was in serious financial trouble in 2001 and decided to dissolve both Florida teams despite the fact that fan support – especially in Tampa Bay – was relatively on par with the rest of the league. MLS failed to secure ownership for the Mutiny and the owner they did get for the Fusion got cold feet. Since the contraction MLS has grown in leaps and bounds, so the perception for some has become that Florida was the quagmire that nearly sunk the league despite the responsibility resting primarily at the feet of MLS.
2015 could be the year when things all start to turn around for soccer fans in Florida though. MLS has reentered the market and are making undeniable positive strides with Orlando City. However, one team can’t revitalize a state the size of Florida on its own. The NASL has also planted a flag in the region, arguably more so than MLS. Across the state, in three major markets NASL teams are setting themselves up for long-term success. They’re doing it by demonstrating commitment, ambition, and investment. Those are all things that fans with a passion for the sport have been desperate to see for decades.
The expansion franchise of the trio, Jacksonville Armada FC may wind up having the best inaugural year of all the expansion teams in the modern NASL’s short history. They already outrank their Florida counterparts in season tickets sold and are on the verge of breaking the league’s single match attendance record in their home debut on Saturday. While their prospects on the field may be in doubt this season their roster shows tremendous ambition. They weren’t content to sign a bunch of North American cast-offs so they put serious work into scouting on the international stage to build their first squad.
After the US Soccer Federation changed the standards for Division II the NASL was forced to fast track the sale of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. This was a great development for fans down in south Florida as then owner Traffic Sports USA seemed to be doing the bare minimum to stay afloat. Players and coaches were paid next to nothing, some even working two jobs to get by. The new Brazilian ownership got off to a rocky start with the local media but have since turned things around quite nicely. They opened up a pipeline for bringing in both young and experienced players from Brazil and are even considering moving the team to a better location away from Lockhart stadium if need be.
Of course the Rowdies fan base may have the most to be excited about when it comes to stadium developments. Owner Bill Edwards won the battle for control of Al Lang stadium near the end of the 2014 season and has wasted no time starting the desperately needed overhaul of the aged venue. A few million dollars in renovations to make the historic baseball venue as soccer-centric as possible have unsurprisingly energized the supporters to a level unlike any prior season. Edwards listened to his staff who put a priority on a professional quality training site and partnered with USF St Pete to make it a reality. He even listened to fans who requested a video board to replace the outdated baseball scoreboard, something that at the end of the day is really a superfluous luxury.
All this is not to say that Florida will suddenly turn into America’s Mecca of soccer in 2015. There will be growing pains, this is after all American soccer. Each team can be – and hopefully will be – doing so much more to help their cause. Maybe the most vital thing that an organization can do is ingratiate itself into the community. You cannot wave a magic wand and hope to achieve that overnight. You need to be around for years and years to form that kind of relationship. That is why showing investment in infrastructure and the community early on is so critical.
But when we look back 20 years from now 2015 might be the year that is singled out as the moment when the tide shifted for soccer in Florida. This is the moment when plans were put into motion. This is when roots were planted. When relationships with sponsors and influential community members were forged. Now that Floridian soccer fans are finally witnessing evidence of investment for the long haul from both the clubs leagues they may return the favor.
I don’t see the general perception of Florida changing anytime soon. It seems to have the spot as the go to punch line for lazy comedians on lockdown. If you love soccer though you may be in luck. You get to be in on the ground floor and help establish a new history for professional soccer in your own backyard. What more can you ask for?