Florida may be known for its football players and athletes. However, this weekend’s soccer match between the United States and Nigeria may be just the moment to ask whether soccer should be one of those sports that’s known as a Sunshine State specialty.
Ten of the 23 players on the final U.S. roster were either born in the state, played varsity soccer here or trained at what is now known as IMG Academy in Bradenton.
That group includes youngsters like Tampa-native Julian Green to presumed starters in Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore.
“They’re extremely happy to play in a familiar environment,” said Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach of the U.S. men’s national team. “This is always exciting because the crowd has all sorts of local kids to identify with.
“I think it’s just exciting to see the path of young players coming through the ranks, fighting their way through and going to bigger clubs and bigger clubs and obviously ending up with the national team to showcase their qualities. This is great for the fans, it’s great for the players and it’s great for the game.”
Alejandro Bedoya is one of the players who has clawed his way up the rungs of the American soccer ladder. The 27-year-old midfielder played club soccer for Weston FC, one of the best youth teams in Florida, as well as varsity soccer at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale.
“The background that I have in Florida growing up, I feel that we have a lot of kids that are so talented — many that are more talented than myself,” said Bedoya, noting that his part of the state was awash in different soccer cultures and playing styles. “But, they didn’t pan out because of discipline and stuff. I think that’s what Florida has, at least in South Florida with the South American and European backgrounds.”
There are more than 108,000 registered youth soccer players in Florida, which is sixth-most in the country. The 14 Floridians on Major League Soccer rosters as of May 29 was fifth-most in the country. Wednesday, Klinsmann said the game is improving at the youth, collegiate and professional levels.
Graham Zusi is a Floridian who has played at all three levels Klinsmann described. The Orlando native is one of 14 MLS players from the state. Wednesday, Zusi said he’ll have at least 20 family and friends in Jacksonville for the American’s final World Cup tune-up match on home soil.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Zusi said. “It’s not my hometown, but it’s definitely my home state. I’ll have a great little contingent coming out. (I’ll have) a lot of family coming up from Orlando and a few friends who live in Jacksonville now. It’s going to be a nice group so hopefully, I get to say ‘hi’ to a lot of people.”
Zusi might have to scan through a lot of faces in the crowd. U.S. Soccer officials said Wednesday that 41,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday’s match.
Should the crowd surpass the 2012 total, which is expected, it would be the biggest crowd to watch a U.S. soccer match in the Southeast and a larger crowd than 12 of the 13 World Cup tune-up matches played on American soil since the trend began in the run in to the 1998 World Cup.
“We love this venue,” Howard said. “The stadium is fantastic. Every time we go there the crowd seems to be right up for it. Jacksonville seems to treat us really well. We feel like kings when we’re here. Everyone seems to be so welcoming.”
Howard remembers when the U.S. beat German opposition for the first time — in February 1999 in Jacksonville — because he drove up from a youth national training camp and watched in the stands.
The veteran goalkeeper has trained in Florida, specifically IMG, multiple times in his career, as have a handful of teammates as either students of IMG Academy or a member of the U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program.
Scott Dean, the director of soccer at IMG Academy said the residency program allows for a continuity of training for America’s elite soccer players.
“It’s advantageous for us because it gives us an opportunity to make up in other areas where other countries can’t,” Dean said. “Currently, we can’t replicate the level of professionalism elsewhere.”
At one time or another Altidore, Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman and Omar Gonzalez trained with the U.S. U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton. Howard trained at the IMG facilities; Aron Johannsson is a 2008 graduate of IMG; Green is a Tampa native, and Bedoya and Zusi played varsity soccer here.
Dean said the ardent soccer fans may know about Florida’s ties to this year’s World Cup team, but the average supporter might not. He also believes that will change in the coming years as those who follow the game most intently — children, teenagers and young adults — become consumers.
Whether those consumers realize the role Florida has played in cultivating the current, and perhaps, future World Cup teams only time will tell.
“I think the national team, at the end of the day, I think is like a locomotive of the whole movement,” Klinsmann said. “If the national team is doing well, everyone else has an easier job. We’re doing well only if the foundation is strong coming from MLS, coming from our players around the world and coming from the youth system.”