Major hurdles still remain
By Kyle LoJacono
Two of Tampa Bay’s most popular youth soccer programs have agreed to merge into one.
The board of directors from Tampa Bay United (TBU) in Hillsborough County and Central Pasco United Soccer Association (CPUSA) have unanimously signed a letter of intent to combine the clubs.
TBU executive director Eric Sims, who also coaches Gaither’s boys soccer team, said talks started last August.
“We don’t just want to merge with any clubs,” Sims said. “We have the same philosophies, and by doing this we pool the best soccer resources together. It started as trying to bring the best kids together, but to develop as many kids it’s bringing the best coaches together too so every kid has a place to play and become a better player.”
The merger would affect more than 3,200 players and would give the new league four soccer complexes; two central locations at Ed Radice Complex in Odessa and at Carrollwood Village and another in South Tampa at Monroe Middle.
The agreement is far from finalized as Hillsborough and Pasco county commissioners and the Florida Youth Soccer Association (FYSA) have to approve the merger.
FYSA program specialist Cody McGhee said the association isn’t scheduled to vote on any merger until its meetings in August, but the process can be sped up.
Hillsborough parks director Mark Thornton said they have no problem with the merger, but Pasco has reservations.
“Our department does not support the merger between Pasco-supported CPUSA and the Tampa Bay club out of Hillsborough County,” said Pasco Parks and Recreation Director Rick Buckman. “There are too many issues and concerns.”
CPUSA is county co-sponsored, which means it receives money and support from Pasco’s government including maintenance of the eight fields at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex on Collier Parkway.
Buckman said public funding is one of the main reasons why they are against the merger.
“The taxpayers need to have answers to their questions, and I think we have the right answers for them,” Sims said. “We aren’t going to do anything without Pasco County’s blessing.”
Sims said they already pay to maintain the Hillsborough fields.
There has also been pushback from people worried the Pasco fields would be dominated by Hillsborough players moving north.
“Pasco County has some concerns, but they’re valid concerns,” Sims said. “Central Pasco isn’t going to change. We have nine fields at Ed Radice and five in the south. There’s plenty of space so the kids play where they live. We just want to build Central Pasco up. We recognize that Central Pasco runs a good program.
“Central Pasco has had a very good younger program from U9 to U12,” Sims continued. “We don’t want people traveling all over at that age. We want them to play where they live and stay in Land O’ Lakes, and then at U13 they can try out for a premier team at the other facilities.”
Sims added many CPUSA players have in the past joined other clubs after U12, making it hard to fill rosters of the older teams.
“If they’re going to be a feeder program, then it should be something they’re a part of,” Sims said. “Not one for other clubs.”
If approved, CPUSA would operate as TBU-Pasco. It would be the second merger involving TBU in as many years following the combining of Hillsborough County United (HCU) and RSL Florida, based in South Tampa.
“A lot of the talk over the last 10 years about Florida youth soccer is about our inability to compete at a regional and national level,” Sims said. “There have been a few teams from Florida that have won regionals, but it’s few and far between. What we saw in other states like Texas, North Carolina and Georgia is they have big clubs that stretch over multiple counties, where we have 20-something clubs in Hillsborough. So everything is very spread out.
“The goal isn’t to merge with as many clubs as possible and take over Tampa Bay or anything like that,” Sims continued. “We want to make sure we’re bringing in good soccer players, coaches and volunteers that you need to run a good soccer program.”
The first merger that created TBU increased player numbers and licensed coaches, which Sims said has improved the clubs’ play.
“In the FYSA state cup we advanced 11 teams to the round of 16, which is more than any other club in Florida,” Sims said. “We’re able to do more things because we have more players. It’s been a very good thing for soccer in this area.”
Sims also sees the merger helping Central Pasco’s economy.
“We also want to bring more tournaments to that facility,” Sims said. “There’s a big October tournament that creates an estimated $7 million economic impact in one weekend. We also host other tournaments that create a lot of tourism.”