LUTZ — Mike Connell wants soccer in America to more closely resemble the game in the rest of the world.
More than 35 years ago, the Tampa Bay Rowdies began introducing the community club soccer concept to the area, a movement that Connell was a part of as a defender for the Rowdies.
The club helped organize one of Tampa's oldest youth soccer clubs, FC Tampa in Town 'N Country. And now, with the construction of the Oscar Cooler Sports Complex on Lutz-Lake Fern Road, Connell has created a Lutz branch of FC Tampa.
"FC Tampa has the same ideals that we did when we wanted to start a club up here, so instead of going through all the paperwork of becoming our own club, we decided to become an extension of FC Tampa," said Connell, 54. "It's been a very successful program so far for all the reasons we hoped it would be. We wanted to be community-based and have the kids feel valued. We wanted them to feel like they were getting good instruction while their parents saved money, and so far we're doing that."
The club is associated with Glasgow Rangers Football Club, one of Scotland's most prominent sporting organizations. Connell's desire to create a soccer club with top-class instruction and facilities at an affordable price fit the Rangers' ideals.
"As soon as we contacted Rangers, they showed interest," Connell said. "It's an iconic club that we can have exchange programs with. Too many clubs seem to teach the kids the game for the sake of playing it, without showing them the grandeur of the game. This could be a stepping-stone from the local level to the big leagues, but if just one of our kids understands what Glasgow Rangers is and what they represent, then the relationship is successful."
The idea has been an instant success in the midst of a struggling economy. Kathy Singleton has three daughters who have made the transfer from another local club, and she said her girls are reaping the benefits of the young program.
"It's been really impressive in comparison to other clubs my daughters have played at," Singleton said. "Mike Connell has really been adamant that he wants everyone to be involved and that he hopes these girls play here all the way through high school. The cost is a fraction of what we paid for with the last club, and I feel like we've been treated better. My daughter has even received specialized goalkeeper training at no extra cost."
The fees are among the cheapest for club soccer in the area, due to the fact that FC Tampa Lutz doesn't pay its coaches. The low cost is something that Connell is proud of as well, saying that he doesn't think "kids should have to buy their right to play the game." He said the goal of FC Tampa Lutz is to return to the ideals of soccer being a game that you don't need to spend a ton of money on to play.
Dave Dudash is the organization's facilities manager and has been a key behind-the-scenes component to the success of FC Tampa Lutz. For him, working with the club and supporting it is a chance to provide his daughter and other kids with the soccer-rich environment he craved for a long time.
"This program has started out even better than I ever anticipated," he said. "There are growing pains, of course, and I think that the next five years is crucial for this branch of FC Tampa. My daughter plays with this group, though, and I have to say the level is as good as anywhere else. But I think it's better here because it's more for the heart and soul of the game than anything else, which is something I've always wanted to see."
Contact David Rice at [email protected]