December’s Disney Soccer Showcase attracted teams from all over the country, including Ohio, New York, Texas, Tennessee and Michigan. But the winner of the Boys Under-16 division traveled less than 90 miles to get to the tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee.
The FC Tampa Rangers, based in Lutz, won the U-16 tournament Dec. 27-30. They got past three other teams in their bracket, winning against all three while allowing just one goal in the process, and reached the finals to face the winner of the other bracket.
That opponent, Dix Hills from New York, is ranked No. 2 in the country and hadn’t allowed a single goal in their bracket play.
The end result? A 4-1 victory for the Rangers and more notoriety for an organization that’s becoming known for strong play and a competitive spirit on the national stage.
“I’m incredibly proud of the boys and the way they represented themselves and the club,” said Mike Connell, director of coaching for the Rangers organization. “It was a huge step for the club because the performance put the FC Tampa Rangers on the national soccer map.”
While he doesn’t think the team was taken lightly, Connell believes the Rangers played at a level their opponents probably didn’t expect, either. In just a few years, the players have become well educated in the game and have a good feel for their roles on the pitch; and Connell said that college scouts at the tournament took note of the team’s impressive play.
While the Rangers strive to be one of the best youth soccer clubs in the country, they have a global perspective regarding the game they play. Connell wants them thinking about winning soccer as its played in other continents like Europe, Africa and South America. The team takes a European-style approach to the game, which involves controlled passing and a patient tempo, as opposed to just kicking the ball and using speed to chase it down.
The style they emulate is being used by successful professional clubs such as Barcelona FC in Spain’s La Liga, AFC Ajax from the Netherlands and Arsenal from the English Premier League, Connell said.
And Connell knows a thing or two about winning soccer himself. As a member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their heyday, he was part of the team’s North American Soccer League championship in 1975. The two-time NASL all-star defender played for the Rowdies until 1984, and is now a big part of local youth soccer. His ability to teach beyond the fundamentals of the game, and provide insight to playing at a championship level, has had a positive effect on the team’s players.
“He’s probably the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Steve Rudderham, the Rangers’ center midfielder, who has been playing the game for more than a decade. Connell is popular with the players, but won’t hesitate to be tough on them if they’re not listening or showing proper respect for the game, he added.
The result has been a very successful youth club, and also a different experience than Rudderham has found on other teams. He lives in Pinellas County and plays for his school’s team, and says the Rangers play better soccer than he’s found at the high school level.
“You don’t get much training in high school. It’s just a thrown-together team, whereas in club you have good coaches and good players, and they all want to be there,” Rudderham said. “They all take it seriously.”
While a high school soccer team works with the players who attend the school and are interested in playing, a youth soccer club draws from an entire area, meaning more competition and better talent. Rudderham estimates between 50 and 60 athletes tried out for the Rangers, with only perhaps half of that number trying out for his high school soccer team.
The Rangers have parlayed that talent and coaching into a winning team with a new trophy on its mantle, but its season isn’t over yet. After more league play, the State Cup will begin this spring, which is considered the main tournament.
It’s also a chance for the Rangers to take another step forward: Last year (as Under-15 players) the Rangers reached the final four at the state competition. Now, with an extra year of experience and a confidence boost from successful play against opponents from around the country, Rudderham thinks the team can go even further and compete for a championship.
To do that, they’ll have to get past rival Sunrise, who won last year’s State Cup for U-15 boys. Like the old Tampa Bay Rowdies-Ft. Lauderdale Strikers battles from decades past, Connell believes that a healthy rivalry against a quality opponent makes a team better, and helps players focus on playing with a purpose.
“You can play soccer just for the sake of playing soccer, or you can play soccer with an ambition,” Connell said. “We try to strive that there’s always an ambition ahead of you.”
Published Jan. 29, 2014
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