BRANDON — A possible merger between two of Hillsborough County's largest youth soccer clubs, HC United and the Brandon Area Youth Soccer League, could bring the most promising local players closer to their goals.
More competitive teams. A chance to compete at prestigious regional tournaments.
There is a potential downside as well, at least if players unattached to soccer clubs in eastern Hillsborough object to the field-use agreements that allow large clubs to regulate who uses public fields.
Such conflicts have already emerged in Tampa involving a deal between the county and HC United. Following tax cuts in 2007, the county agreed to turn over management of Ed Radice Sports Complex to HC United. In return, the club agreed to maintain the park's nine soccer fields.
BAYSL, the league with which HC United is in merger talks, has a similar agreement to manage its four soccer fields at J.C. Handley Park. Many other fields have similar agreements with a variety of athletic clubs, county parks spokesman John Brill said.
"Whether it's Little League baseball, football or soccer, there's a user agreement," Brill said.
Under such agreements, clubs mow grass, pick up trash, maintain the turf and schedule and manage the fields. The county maintains common areas.
The organization gets to decide who plays on the fields — and who doesn't. That policy has rankled some residents, who wonder why the public can't use parks supported by tax dollars.
"To me it's a major conflict with the citizens of Hillsborough County," said Kevin Shelton, of Odessa, who said representatives of HC United have ended his pick-up soccer games at Ed Radice Sports Complex.
"They say, 'What a great thing. Look who's taking care of these fields,' " said Shelton, 39. "What they're not saying is, 'You no longer can play on these public fields unless you belong to a soccer club.' "
Eric Sims, HC United's general manager, said he has heard the objection that public parks ought to be open to the public.
"We understand that we don't own the complex," Sims said. "But by the same token, we're paying $120,000 to maintain the fields."
Shelton has taken hired an attorney and taken his case to County Administrator Pat Bean and parks director Mark Thornton. He said he is uncertain about what he will do next.
The county has added playing space in eastern Hillsborough County, including seven fields at the new Summerfield Soccer Complex on Big Bend Road in Riverview that will be maintained by South Hillsborough Soccer, Brill said. A move by the county to turn three softball fields into five soccer fields at J.C. Handley is currently behind schedule, but BAYSL leaders hope it will be complete by spring.
"I don't know the schedule, but I know that was the plan," Brill said.
BAYSL used to allow pick-up games when its fields were not in use, but doesn't anymore, president Steve Jarosz said.
"We've found golf balls on the fields," he said. "Baseballs from Little League games and people who were using the goals as a batting cage. They play flag football in cleats. It's just been ridiculous."
Like it or not, the situation exists because tax cuts have made it impossible for the county to maintain its own fields, Brill said. The county will continue to allow sports clubs to maintain them into the foreseeable future, he said.
"It's probably not a decision we wanted to have to make," he said. "We would have just as soon maintained all the fields."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.