TAMPA — Is Tampa Bay big enough to support two professional soccer franchises? That question will arise in 2013, when United Soccer Leagues is slated to bring a team to Hillsborough County.
The USL, organizer of several leagues and based in Tampa's West Shore district, awarded a Tampa-based Pro franchise to UK-based VisionPro Sports Institute, it was announced Wednesday at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
VSI also will launch an international youth academy in partnership with the Brandon Flames youth club. In addition, a Premier Developmental League (amateur) team, a Super-20 (ages 17-20) team and a W-League (pro women's) team will begin play in 2012.
Both the USL and VSI are committed to being based and operated in Hillsborough County. USF's Corbett Stadium is an option for a homefield.
FC Tampa Bay, a team in the U.S. Soccer Federation's Division 2 NASL, just completed its second season of existence and is slated to begin the second half of a two-year deal playing at Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg.
USL Pro is a USSF Division 3 league, one level below the NASL, meaning it doesn't meet as stringent standards as Division 2.
"We certainly recognize that there's another professional soccer team that plays out of St. Pete," USL president Tim Holt said. "I would reiterate that this is a Hillsborough County soccer initiative. We think the support for a pro team within Hillsborough County and, to some extent, the neighboring counties — southern Pasco and Pinellas to some extent — is enough to make this sustainable.
"I wouldn't want to say we're competing. I think people would see it that way to some extent. And we don't. We're very focused on our own initiative. If this were just another professional soccer team, it would be different. But it's a different composition"
Holt said the youth academy, which will introduce soccer to youngsters and serve as a pipeline to the Super-20 and Premier Developmental League, will differentiate this club.
VisionPro Sports Institute, which opened its first academy in Spain this year and plans one in Portugal next year, will own and operate all aspects of the academy and its clubs. It is VSI's first soccer venture in the United States.
While FC Tampa Bay president and team owner Andrew Nestor said he welcomed the newcomers, he didn't see the new Pro team as competition.
"I honestly don't think that this market can support two professional teams," Nestor said. "I can't say that I figured USL would want a team in Tampa, but it doesn't surprise me.
"Me personally, if I were just investing in the game and looking at the Tampa Bay market and seeing there was already an NASL team in that market, I would not think it's a good investment to put another team here."
As far as sharing the market, Nestor emphasized that while his club currently called St. Petersburg home, it reaches beyond Pinellas County.
"We're the highest level of soccer in Tampa Bay," he said. "And even though we play in St. Pete and have enjoyed our experience with the city and business owners there, I still see FC Tampa Bay as a team that reached all parts of Tampa Bay."
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com.