Soccer is arguably the world's most popular game, but in America it has taken a back seat to sports that were created domestically. On pitches all over the bay area and surrounding counties, however, amateurs are pushing the American brand of the game.
The Florida Suncoast Soccer League, or FSSL, was established in 1973 as a recreational league for men. Over that time it has become Florida's premier amateur soccer league and a haven for talented players, young and old.
"There are other leagues around here but they're mostly recreational leagues," FSSL vice president Bob Saxon said. "I spent time in Germany while I was in the Army and became familiar with the game through my time over there. The play in this league is comparable to what I saw over there. I'm very proud of this league and how the teams play."
The league is set up to support high-level play. The referees are some of the best in the state and in some cases, just a few steps away from refereeing professional matches.
The players, 18 and older, compete to advance their teams through the league, which has four divisions for players younger than 40 and one older than 40 division.
Similar to European or South American leagues, the winner of each division moves up a division and the last-place teams move down a division. For first division teams looking to join the Premier Division, the FSSL's top flight, approval by the board of directors is required before they can advance.
The Premier Division is composed of only six teams for the 2008-09 season, but normally would have more.
"The economy is hitting everyone hard," league administrator Jennifer Weston said. "Some teams couldn't afford to register this year; some players couldn't afford to register and then travel to games. We had a few teams fold completely and a few just needed to move down because of player losses. So we've had to do crossover games for the Premier Division this year in order to keep from having them play each other too many times."
Premier Division teams play at a level comparable to a minor-league professional team. In the past, the Kickers, the team that won the 2008 U.S. Soccer Nationals, have played against European clubs during their summer vacation.
"Back in the late 1980s and early '90s, we played Bayern Munich and Bayern Leverkusen from Germany," Saxon said. "When the match was over, they couldn't believe we were amateurs. We even played in a CONCACAF event once and had to play the best team from Mexico, which was Club America. We lost 1-0, but they should have had a few guys red-carded for fighting."
According to Saxon, teams mostly composed of foreign players have not fared well in the league.
"They come in and try to play their way," Saxon said. "The refs call the game differently here. The American game is different. So when they struggle and don't win, the first thing they say is that the league is prejudiced, but in truth, it's just a different type of soccer."
Among the league players and managers, the consensus is that the league is well organized and worth the $800 team entry fee. Mike Harris is the coach of the division two Pasco Gunners and feels the league is worth the investment.
"I've been playing for the past 15 or 16 years, and I think the competition is very good," Harris said. "The games are called pretty fair, and the league office does a good job of organizing and running things."
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