Starting in May, Sarasota will be the home of a United Soccer League team, classified into the USL's League Two. The U.S. soccer pyramid is a complex beast, but it can be helpful, if a bit reductive, to think of it in baseball terms.
If Major League Soccer is the equivalent of Major League Baseball, then the USL's Championship division is something akin to triple-A baseball — minus the "farm system" aspects — the USL's League One is akin to double-A baseball and the USL's League Two is single-A baseball.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies play in the USL's Championship division, while Tampa Bay United SC plays in League Two.
Like I said, this is not a perfect comparison. The USL has more leagues than this, and there are other leagues outside of the USL umbrella that also slot into these levels at various places. The important thing to know is this: Sarasota is getting a "pre-professional" soccer team. The league is meant to help young players with their development and, ideally, have them reach higher levels of the sport. The league is mostly a U23 league, though teams can carry eight players older than that restriction to serve as mentors for their young teammates.
The Sarasota team, right now still unnamed, will play games at Sarasota High during its initial 2023 season.
The club launched itself with a small gathering Nov. 19 at the Sarasota Art Museum. The gathering, made up of club and USL staff and people in the Sarasota soccer and business communities, was kicked off by club founder Marcus Walfridson and served as both an initial opportunity to secure ticket purchases and a chance for the club to pitch itself to the community.
"What is Sarasota?" Walfridson said. "It is beautiful. There are a lot of awesome people. A lot of art, a lot of culture. Those are good things. But I've been looking for the identity. I think we as a club, all of us here, can help form the identity. We can make it possible for people who move to Sarasota to come to our games, put up a scarf and say, 'We are Sarasotans.'"
Over a little more than six years on the beat, I have seen a handful of semi-pro sports teams try to use the Sarasota-Bradenton area as a base. Most of them have failed. The fact is, unless you're a die-hard sports fan, you probably don't care about seeing some mid-talent athletes with no big-time prospects play games on high school athletic facilities.
The USL seems to get that and pledges that its league is different, that this team will give fans a reason to watch. It's why the club is appealing to a sense of community, but it is also why USL Vice President Joel Nash mentioned in his presentation that eight of the 26 U.S. national team players in Qatar for the World Cup players played in USL2, as it is commonly referred. That group includes goalkeeper Matt Turner, who on Monday started in net for the United States as the team tied Wales 1-1.
That, to me, is a compelling narrative. These players will not be adults looking to relive their glory days for some cash. They will be kids with real talent looking to better themselves for a shot at something more, a dream that not only can be achieved but has been achieved by others. And, to top it all off: Walfridson promised that the club would try to fill its roster with as many players native to Sarasota as possible. It shouldn't be a problem; Walfridson said that the club has had approximately 60 players reach out with interest. Based on last year's Olympics, we know the city can produce world-class talent, but in my time here, not much of that talent has gone to soccer. How cool would it be to cheer on a Sarasota native at the World Cup, still the world's biggest sporting event, in 2030 or 2034, after watching them learn their craft here?
The club will hold tryouts early next year, as soon as it hires a coach, which Walfridson said it hopes to have in mid-January.
There's no logo or uniform designs available for the club yet, but the club's creative director, Liam Murtaugh, gave a lengthy presentation on the things he and the club are taking into consideration while building the team's brand. Those things include physical things like the city's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and public art like the newly created Buck O'Neil mural, but they also include more abstract ideas like the city's changing population size and demographics. This will be a modern-looking club, staff promised.
It was a thoughtful presentation. That thoughtfulness permeated the whole event and is the main reason I am optimistic about the club's future here. Nothing about this club is being thrown together on a lark. The USL itself is headquartered in Tampa. Whatever support the Sarasota club needs at the start, I'm confident the USL will provide it. This initial presentation made it clear that the club wants to be entrenched in the community for a long time.
It will need fan support to do that, of course. Walfridson said the team will host at least seven regular-season matches in its inaugural season, with a preseason match likely and postseason matches a possibility if the club qualifies. It will play other USL2 teams based in Florida, like the aforementioned Tampa club and Miami AC. Season tickets are already available: a season-long seat in the west-side stands costs $149 while a seat on the east-side stands costs $79. Those packages come with a free T-shirt and other goodies. If you're feeling especially bullish, you can secure one of 25 "Founding Member" packages for $1,499, which will get your name featured on the team website and in the stadium, an official team jersey, VIP credentials and other perks.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.