by JAKE NUTTING
Another facet of the Tampa Bay Rowdies bid to win an expansion spot in Major League Soccer was made public recently.
Saint Leo University has announced that Keith Fulk has stepped down after six seasons in charge of the school’s men’s team to accept a new role in youth development with the Rowdies. Fulk will serve as the director of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams under the umbrella of a new partnership between the Rowdies and Tampa Bay United (TBU).
Neither the Rowdies nor Tampa Bay United have made the deal official, but an independent source has confirmed the news to be true.
“It’s definitely something different and it’s a change. It’s a chance to coach coaches in addition to coaching players,” Fulk said of his position with the Rowdies.
“I want to thank Fran (Reidy) and the Saint Leo administration for giving me the opportunity to build a great soccer program and touch young peoples’ lives,” Fulk added. “I feel this program is a lot stronger than when I started. I want to thank my alumni and my current players, who left an impression on me and from whom I learned a lot; I hope they learned as much from me as learned from them. I’m grateful for the opportunity to coach them.”
A native of Pennsylvania, Fulk has been a prominent figure in the Tampa Bay soccer scene for over 30 years. In his freshman year at the University of Tampa, Fulk and his teammates claimed the school’s first national title. After eight years of playing professional indoor soccer, Fulk returned to the Spartans as an assistant coach. Eventually Fulk advanced to the head coaching position at UT, leading his alma mater to three Sunshine State Conference titles and three NCAA Division II Tournament appearances. During his final season with the Spartans in 2001, the school posted an unbeaten record of 19W-0L-2D and claimed the national championship, earning Fulk Coach of the Year honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
After a brief stint with the West Virginia University Mountaineers, Fulk joined U.S. Soccer as an assistant for the U-17 national team. Following eight years with U.S. Soccer, Fulk returned to coaching in the Bay Area with the IMG Academy in 2010. The next year he landed at Saint Leo, where he captured two Sunshine State Conference titles and made three NCAA tournament appearances.
The Rowdies making moves to organize some type of player development program is almost certainly an effort to strengthen the team’s bid for a spot in MLS. Owner Bill Edwards has pledged to privately finance the necessary stadium expansion at Al Lang and pay the league’s $150 million expansion fee, but MLS Commissioner Don Garber outlined in December that bidders should also show a commitment toward investing in several other areas. Player development would be a prime example of one such area.
It’s not the first time the Rowdies have dipped their toes into the waters of youth development. In Edwards’ first year as owner, the team formed a partnership with another prominent program in the region, Charges SC. The deal was meant to give the Rowdies an advisory role in technical aspects of the Chargers Development Academy. Apart from a few soccer clinics and discounted tickets for kids in the program, though, the partnership has not appeared particularly active over the last three years.
At this time it’s unclear what the nature of the relationship between the Rowdies and TBU will be. TBU currently fields Development Academy teams at the U-12, U-13 and U-14 levels. In contrast, Chargers SC cover every age group from U-12 to U-17/18.