A popular youth athletic program in Pasco County took a major hit earlier this month. The Greater Tampa Bay Football Club, which provides competitive soccer opportunities to more than 1,000 area children, was forced — perhaps temporarily — to shut down its competitive program.
While area soccer players scramble to figure out where they will be playing this year, the aftermath of a failed merger with the West Florida Flames, a club based in Brandon, continues to play out.
"The decision by Greater Tampa Bay to end their competitive program is a blow for the game we love and a sucker punch for the players who simply want to play the game they love," Mike Connell, co-founder of the FC Tampa Rangers in Lutz, wrote on the Rangers' Facebook page. "Both the game and the players have been wronged by those who were supposed to protect the parties."
The reason for this cease in operations is complicated. In order to improve competitive soccer with Greater Tampa Bay FC, the organization made a decision last year to facilitate a merger between itself and the Flames, which has teams around Tampa Bay.
According to Mark Rodrigues, executive director of Greater Tampa Bay FC, the initial reason for the merger was to help the handful of kids involved with competitive soccer in Land O'Lakes — those who had advanced to the point where they could compete at an elite level. West Florida could provide those few players that opportunity.
When looking at the numbers, the impact should have been minimal. Greater Tampa Bay FC had approximately 1,200 players overall with 350 taking part in the club's competitive soccer program. Of those 350, only a low percentage would need to advance to one of West Florida's teams based in Brandon or East Lake.
The politics of the merger took a turn for the worse once the calendar year changed.
"West Florida said everything they needed to say initially to get things going," Rodrigues said, "but once we signed on the dotted line at the new year, they wanted more."
The board of directors for the Flames pushed to have Greater Tampa Bay's website and registration process funneled through West Florida. The potential merger, which was never made official due to a lack of documentation provided to the Pasco County Department of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, had become a power play for both sides.
When most of the financial benefits began to land on the side of West Florida, the board of directors even pushed to have Greater Tampa Bay FC financial officer Charlene Weaver ousted. With most of Greater Tampa Bay's players and coaches already taking part in the competitive season with West Florida, the situation became dire.
A May 2 e-mail issued by the board of directors from Greater Tampa Bay FC said that the club "is now immediately turning our attention to building an even greater quality recreational soccer program for our community than already exists." The letter all but dismissed the potential for competitive soccer at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex this year.
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Rodrigues, who has headed up Greater Tampa Bay since 2013, corrected that idea.
"We are still working closely with West Florida to come up with an agreement that could save competitive soccer here," he said. "While we no longer wish to merge with the Flames, an affiliation that would benefit both clubs would allow us to rebuild and still let the best players compete with them."
The conflict with Greater Tampa Bay FC is not the only such issue that West Florida has had with mergers recently. A proposed merger with Tampa Bay United in Hillsborough County — one that would serve roughly 9,000 area players — was agreed upon in December, only to see the deal fall apart in March.
"The best way to ease any tension is for every club to do the best they can with their program and let families decide what is best for their children's needs," United CEO Charlie Slagle said. "I see no reason to have tension amongst clubs. We are all trying to do the same thing: to provide a great youth athletic experience."
Of the failed merger with United, West Florida director Steve Rammel said, "It comes down to ego and control, and that's just the reality of it."
While everyone continues to insist that the community's youths are the top concern, money has also become an issue. With the many changes that took place prematurely, allowing West Florida to gain control, Greater Tampa Bay lost a lot of funds.
If an affiliation with West Florida falls through again, Rodrigues and the board of directors at Greater Tampa Bay FC have alternative plans, including approaching other local clubs. The group insists that they have no plans to completely abandon competitive soccer. With tryouts for those teams scheduled for the end of this month at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex, the deadline is drawing near.
"Without an agreement, we will have to cancel those tryouts," Rodrigues said, "but our intention is to not let it get to that point. By the end of the week, there will be a decision one way or the other. The growth of soccer in this area lies in Pasco County."
Times correspondent Andrew Forest contributed to this report.