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Soccer leagues merge to strengthen opportunities

League officials say unified goals will help the Lakewood Ranch area's youth soccer players.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. July 10, 2024
Neathan Gibson is the director of coaching for the new Premier Soccer FC SWFL in East County.
Neathan Gibson is the director of coaching for the new Premier Soccer FC SWFL in East County.
Photo by Dani Hernandez
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Antonio Saviano, the executive director of the new Florida Premier FC SWFL, said the level of soccer play in East County is about to rise to a much higher level.

Saviano cited the merging in March of two well-known soccer clubs, Florida Premier and the Braden River Soccer Club, as the spark that will provide new opportunities for growth for area youth soccer players.

While Braden River Soccer Club is an established program, operating in the area since 2001, Florida Premier is a regional powerhouse that has expanded to the Lakewood Ranch for the first time.

"Through the partnership between Braden River Soccer Club and Florida Premier, our goal is to create new pathways for local soccer players to succeed, offering them expanded opportunities for success both on and off the field, and fostering a stronger sense of unity within our soccer community," Saviano said.

He said, in terms of club culture and player development, both organizations are committed to promoting the same values and ideas and look forward to working together to further those goals.

Originally founded as the West Pasco Youth Soccer Association (WPYSA) in 1979, Florida Premier has been a Pasco County institution for more than 40 years. As the club has grown over the years into the Tampa Bay area, it has created new partnerships and has continued its expansion into the Lakewood Ranch area.

Florida Premier has fielded teams for boys and girls in every age level from U7 to U12. At the U7 and U8 age groups, Saviano said the focus is on developing individual ball skills and introducing soccer to the players. The U9s-U12a study the fundamentals of soccer while putting equal emphasis on technical talents.

The senior (U13 to U19) and junior (U7-U12) teams of Florida Premier have won many titles in traveling competitions, showing the program's overall success.

Braden River Soccer Club, meanwhile, has been a non-profit serving approximately 1,500 boys and girls in the Manatee County area. In 2023, the Braden River Soccer Club had approximately 75 teams competing in recreational play in age groups from 4 to 18 while also fielding 38 competitive (traveling) teams in age groups from 8 to 19. 

Brandin Gallaway takes a corner kick for Braden River Soccer Club during a practice at Premier Sports Campus in July 2023.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

The merger won't affect the Braden River Soccer Club's recreational program, which will remain virtually the same under Premier Soccer FC SWFL. But Saviano said the opportunities for the traveling league players will increase.

For example, Premier Soccer FC SWFL will be competing in the Girls ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) and ECNL-R (Elite Clubs National League-Regional) and Boys ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) and ECNL-R (Elite Clubs National League-Regional) programs. At the regional and national levels, these programs provide the top competitive soccer experience for youth players.

Saviano said the Braden River Soccer Club and Florida Premier FC SWFL partnered for a number of strategic reasons.

By combining the resources of the two clubs, Saviano said the program can improve its training programs and coaching personnel, which will benefit local soccer players and benefit the entire soccer community.

Through the agreement, the players in Florida Premier FC SWFL will be able to reach a greater geographic audience and provide players with access to more high quality and diversified events, which will further the local players' development and provide them with national competition like the ECNL.

He said by working together, the two clubs will develop a unified goal and plan, which will improve player development and success on a steady basis. The collaboration intends to give the local soccer community access to a better, more competitive, and well-resourced soccer program.

Some members of the local soccer community were worried the merger would be like a complete takeover, with the Premier Soccer FC SWFL program dominating and making all the decisions. In actuality, Braden River will continue to operate its annual recreational program, while Premier Soccer FC SWFL will offer a more expansive competitive outlet to develop local players, if they decide to go that direction.

Neathan Gibson, director of coaching of Premier Soccer FC SWFL, said the connection with Florida Premier will attract more attention to people in the area who plan to have their children pursue soccer.

“Before the partnership became official in March, a lot of people knew about the Braden River Soccer Club, but people wouldn’t really get hyped up whenever they heard the name of the club," Gibson said. 

With new partnerships come new opportunities and new teams.

 A UPSL (United Premier Soccer League) squad in Lakewood Ranch was formally unveiled by Florida Premier on June 21. It will compete against other semiprofessional teams in the Florida West Division of the UPSL. Tryouts for Florida Premier FC SWFL will take place on Aug. 3-4 at 9 a.m. at Lakewood Ranch Park, 5490 Lakewood Ranch Blvd.

Only male players who were born in 2008 or before are eligible to try out.

The Premier Soccer FC SWFL program begins regular play in August.


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