It started as a way to stay in shape over the summer for five club soccer buddies from Kendall who had gone on to play in college.
They had no idea at the time when they met up at Kendall Soccer Park for Monday night 5v5 pickup games that they would wind up playing in tournaments as far as Dubai and Thailand. Or that this weekend they would be playing at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami for a chance to travel to Brazil for the championship of the Neymar Jr. Five tournament.
Steven Saballos, Christian Velez, Alessandro Mion and Daniel Gonzalez played together at Kendall Soccer Coalition. Stivan Salinas played at nearby South Kendall. Saballos and Velez were teammates at Ferguson High. Salinas went to Killian and Mion to Gulliver. All five played in college — Salinas at the University of South Florida, Saballos at Stetson, Velez at Florida Gulf Coast, Mion at Virginia Tech and Gonzalez at FIU.
They joined forces five years ago, during summer break, and before long they had a name (La Oficina), a reputation among locals as the team to beat, and they began entering and winning cash-prize tournaments, with payouts ranging from $500 to $4,000 for the winning team. They recently added a sixth player, Julian Conditti of Florida Memorial University.
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Over the past two years, their quick passing and decision-making has taken them to national tournaments in Las Vegas and Southern California, and international tournaments in Dubai and Thailand. This Saturday at Bayfront Park, they are among 18 regional finalists who will be playing for the chance to travel to Neymar’s hometown, Praia Grande, Brazil, for the World Championship on July 7-8.
Neymar will be at the world final to hand-deliver the trophy, and the winning team gets an all-expenses paid trip to Spain to watch a Barcelona match, hang out with Neymar and meet his Barca teammates.
The Neymar tournament began with 96,000 players from 53 countries, including 550 teams in the United States. Of those 550 teams, 18 are left standing.
“When all of this started, we were college students looking to stay in shape over the summers and make some extra money,” said Saballos, 26, who recently got his master’s degree in accounting. “We never imagined it would lead to all of this. It’s another amazing door soccer has opened for us, allowing us to travel to places we might never have seen.”
Velez opened a Latin American restaurant called “Paradise” in Key West last week but was returning to Miami for the tournament.
Salinas is an account manager for a flower company and loves the camaraderie in 5v5 soccer.
“There is so much interaction between the players because the space is so small. I love chasing the ball, whether it’s 2v2, 5v5 or 11v11,” he said.
“This is a way for us to keep playing soccer. And if we make it to Brazil to meet Neymar, that would be incredible.”
The 5v5 format is fast-paced (games are 10 minutes long), and the matches are played on small fields, which requires excellent ball control and quick decision-making. The Neymar tournament has an added wrinkle — each time a team allows a goal, that team sends a player to the bench. The team with one man standing at the end wins.
Games begin at 10 a.m. Saturday at Bayfront Park, and the championship is at 3:40 p.m.
▪ Local team wins trip to Portugal: Speaking of local players doing exciting things, the Pinecrest Premier U-13 Boys team won the European Showcase by FIGO Florida (beating Weston FC’s U-13 Black team 2-1), which resulted in an all-expenses paid trip to Portugal as a U.S. representative in the IVP World Cup/IVP Castelo de Vide Cup from July 3-8. They will play against some of the best European U-13 teams, including Benfica and Cristiano Ronaldo’s youth club, Andorinha.
“Win, lose or draw, it will be a great life and cultural experience for the boys,” coach Dennis Llama said.
“I always tell the boys and the parents that, ‘Yes, we want to win and play at the highest level we can, but what really stays with you your whole life are the relationships you make and the life lessons you learn from soccer.’ This trip will be something they will always remember.”
EPL: Chelsea (93), Tottenham (86), Manchester City (78), Liverpool (76), Arsenal (75).
La Liga: Real Madrid (93), Barcelona (90), Atletico Madrid (78), Sevilla (72), Villarreal (67).
Serie A: Juventus (91), Roma (87), Napoli (86), Atalanta (72), Lazio (70).
Ligue 1: Monaco (95), PSG (87), Nice (78), Lyon (67), Marseille (62).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (82), Leipzig (67), Dortmund (64), Hoffenheim (62).
NASL: Miami FC (18), Jacksonville (16), Carolina (14), N.Y. and San Francisco (13).
MLS: East — Toronto (29), NYC and Chicago (24). West — Houston (23), KC (22), Portland (21).