LAND O'LAKES — The Score at the Shore soccer tournament has been in the Tampa Bay area for five years now, and for the second year in a row games took place in Pasco County at Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex and Wesley Chapel District Park.
Parents, referees and players braved the cold winds and wet conditions for Saturday's tournament kickoff. About 300 teams competed in the youth soccer league of champions. Every team had to win a major trophy in its regular competitions to get an invite to Score at the Shore.
"All these teams have won state cups or regional championships," tournament organizer Gary Nelson said. "All these teams are top level youth teams. The main thing is that this is about the kids' development, but tournaments like this also help build American soccer. I would rank it in the top five youth tournaments in the country."
It was at the first Score at the Shore in Long Island where now-U.S. national team captain Landon Donovan was discovered. The attention Donovan brought has been the biggest contribution to the tournament's success.
"He was instrumental in getting this started," Nelson said. "A lot of college coaches came to see him, and since then the older age groups at this tournament have gotten a lot of attention from college recruiters."
The tournament not only attracts scouts but even aspiring officials. The level of play is high enough that it provides a good experience for referees from all over the country.
Michael Henry, 17, from Land O'Lakes, is a lifelong soccer fan and aspires to one day be a professional referee. When the opportunity arose to do at Score at the Shore, he was sure to make himself available.
"I've done a lot of other tournaments but the kids at this tournament are really good," Henry said. "It's a high-quality tournament, so as an official you want to make yourself available for it. If tournaments like this give players a sense of high quality play, it can do the same for referees."
Parents see the tournament as a way for their kids to continue growing in ways that playing local teams just can't provide.
"It's always a good experience to play against kids from other states," said parent Joe Dunton, from the Tarpon FC team out of Tarpon Springs. "We're about to play a team from Colorado and we don't know what to expect. Last year was our first year in this tournament, and we made it all the way to the finals at the U-13 level before we got beat badly by a team from Michigan. This year we expect it to be harder because there are more teams in the age group."
Central Pasco is a long drive from Long Island, where tournament organizer Nelson lives, but the Tampa Bay area has become a permanent home of the tournament.
"Tampa has been really good to us," Nelson said. "Normally the conditions are great and make for great soccer weather. We love coming down here."
Times correspondent David Rice can be reached at email@example.com.