South Florida has become a destination for international soccer competition in 2013. Sun Life Stadium played host to CONCACAF Gold Cup matches on Friday and a friendly between Haiti and Spain last month and will host the next round of the Guinness International Champions Cup in August, featuring international powerhouse teams such as Real Madrid, AC Milan and Chelsea.
In the midst of all that international attention, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, South Florida’s professional soccer team in the North American Soccer League, held tryouts Saturday at Lockhart Stadium hoping to find talent to improve the team’s last-place finish this spring in the eight-team league.
The tryouts drew more than 100 players from across the world, with players mainly discovering the team and the opportunity through Google or following the team online. The coaching staff divided the potential pros into teams that rotated between halves over multiple games.
Interim coach Ricardo Lopes said the setup helps him and his coaching staff single out the best players and puts them in an “all-star game” at the end of the day.
“The idea is to make it the best 22 players and the best two teams and then invite two or three,” Lopes said.
One of the players who made the all-star team was Kingsley Onwuka, who played striker and said he scored a few goals and got some assists. Onwuka traveled to the tryouts from Maryland, where he played for the Baltimore Bohemians, a United Soccer League team.
“I follow the team, and I saw online that they had an open tryout. I talked with my agent, and he said it was a good opportunity,” said Onwuka, who also pointed out the diversity of the amateurs. “I’ve seen older guys, younger guys, all races — It’s a diverse group.”
Despite the growing interest in soccer in South Florida and the diverse international culture, the Strikers still struggle to develop a large fan base. The team’s peak attendance last season was 5,201 — slightly above a quarter of the seating capacity at Lockhart Stadium. Kyle Kady, a Palm Beach Gardens resident and diehard fan of the Strikers, thinks events such as the tryout can help the Strikers attract more fans and add to the national soccer culture.
“It’s giving local guys a shot to play true professional football,” Kady said. “Developing the youth level will help the national team and anything that does that has got to be good.”
Lopes recognizes that his team doesn’t have the appeal of the Heat, but he’s more concerned with finding talent than attracting fans with a local name. He emphasized that the team has signed players from tryouts in the past such as Mark Anderson, one of the team’s midfielders.
And that hope keeps the amateurs such as Rogers Pineda of Colombia coming back. Pineda tried out for the team when it was still Miami FC and didn’t make it, but he wasn’t deterred.
“It was hard, there was a lot of competition,” Pineda said. “It’s experience, it helps you see how the players are and the level they’re at and if you have to improve.”
And Pineda and the hundreds of other hopefuls hope they can be one of the few chosen to make the team and play professionally in the fall.
“I want to be a soccer player; I’m not just a fan,” Pineda said.