Sunday, April 22, 2018
Sports

VSI Tampa Bay soccer scores on the field, not the stands

PLANT CITY

Things haven't gone quite according to the blueprint for the first-year pro soccer franchise in Plant City.

And that has nothing to do with the quality of the team. VSI Tampa Bay's first season in the USL Pro league, considered the third "tier" of the American soccer pyramid, has been a success on the field.

After Sunday's 0-0 draw with undefeated Richmond, VSI Tampa Bay sits in sixth place. The top eight teams qualify for postseason. Impressive stuff for the inaugural season.

In May VSI put a major scare into the Tampa Bay Rowdies, losing 2-1 as part of the U.S. Open Cup tournament. A neutral bystander would have had difficulty choosing which team was in the second-tier NASL and which was the supposed inferior club.

There are three other clubs under the VSI Tampa Bay umbrella: two intended to groom youngsters into the class of joining the pro club, and one a women's team. All play at Plant City Stadium, a first-class facility.

That's where the disappointment lies.

"The venue's great," said Clay Roberts, who as director of soccer oversees the entire program. "But we were hoping for more of a draw. It has been disappointing."

Roberts' most tangible, and sad, example sits just outside the complex.

An early press release from the team touted how Plant City Stadium, which housed the Cincinnati Reds from 1998 to 1996 and more recently was known for use by softball teams at all levels, was set to be converted to a "soccer-specific" stadium.

Specifically, a 1,500-seat bleacher was to be added. The plan was to offset what can be a somewhat cavernous visual effect of having a soccer field set away from where the actual seats are. The bleachers would have been right behind the team benches and would have provided a more closed-off, intimate setup.

"But with the (low) attendance, it just wasn't worth the effort and expense of putting up the bleachers," Roberts said.

Another part of the plan was to pull from the large group of Hispanic soccer fans in the area. The Spanish league that plays at Otis M. Andrews brings in huge crowds.

"Two miles north of here they get two, three thousand," Roberts said, pointing north. "On a couple of nights where the games overlapped, everyone was there."

As a result this season has taken on a temporary feel as far as being housed in Plant City.

But that doesn't mean things can't improve. There's still plenty worth checking out. Roberts has overseen a mixture of USL veterans and younger veterans that has gotten along very well; even having its first head coach resign a month into the season did not measurably disrupt its growth.

"The quality's there," said Josh Rife, who would know. He spent 10 years playing for USL club Charlotte and is the only VSI player born in the 1970s albeit missing 1980 by three days.

Rife wore the captain's band for Sunday night's game, where Tampa Bay played a Richmond team that had just upset league-leading Orlando City. VSI would have won but for some alert reflexes by Richmond's goalkeeper, and some bad luck as two balls got to the goal line before being cleared away.

"What's good is the young players are willing to learn," Rife said. "I've been on teams where the young guys want to come out and set the world on fire, but aren't willing to listen and learn."

Roberts' organization has an impressive setup. VSI Tampa Bay's four teams all play at Plant City Stadium. The USL Pro team is obviously the top side, followed by the PDL (development) and an Under-20 team.

Sebastian Thuriere is an early example. The former USF star was on the PDL team last year and was the first to make the jump.

"It was an easy transition for me, being in the program, being from here," he said. "We have a great mixture here. Our talent and depth make it hard for the coach to pick a starting 11 each night."

And the feeder program goes deeper than the squads that play in Plant City. Both the VSI West Florida (Brandon) and VSI Pinellas Flames youth organizations are affiliated.

"We want it to be a 'youth-to-pro' plan," Roberts said. "We want the (USL) team to be home grown like Sebastian was."

Even if it means that pro team ends up playing somewhere else. Team owners plan for a major soccer complex, with 20 fields and a centerpiece stadium, in Tampa.

Until then Roberts hopes that as the games get more important, more than the normal 300 to 400 fans make it to the stadium.

"We do everything we can, make it affordable, kids get in free," Roberts said. "On a night like (Sunday) there's no school, you have people on vacation and so you'd hope for a better crowd."

The next chance to see the team comes July 13 against Charleston. There are nine games left in the regular season with the biggest crowd anticipated for the Aug. 4 visit from Orlando City.

For information and tickets, visit vsi-fc.com.

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