Greg Cote

Inter Miami’s ‘Demolition Ceremony’ begins soccer team’s frantic race against time | Opinion

The Inter Miami soccer club staged a “Demolition Ceremony” on Wednesday that was considerably more ceremony than demolition.

The “event” was pretty much a comically unnecessary exercise in stagecraft that happened to be held (not coincidentally) on the very day the expansion Major League Soccer team set to begin play in 2020 began accepting season-ticket deposits.

With great pomp and a keen eye on publicity the team’s owner, Jorge Mas, joined Fort Lauderdale mayor Dean Trantalis and other officials in front of the decaying ghost of old, abandoned Lockhart Stadium. A crowd of club employees and media gathered. The Southern Legion fan club (its “support group,” in soccer parlance) waved large flags, banged drums, chanted and set off pink smoke bombs.

At one point, with great fanfare and dramatic buildup, the team and city officials donned black construction hardhats bearing the pink and black Inter Miami logo and walked to a podium with a large button on it. There was a countdown after which 11-year-old Jonathan Young, one of the club’s youth academy players, pushed the button.

The button was connected to nothing. No implosion. No explosion. No hardhats needed. Not even a decent wrecking ball swung. The button signaled an orange Doosan DX140 excavator to bring its claw down and begin demolishing a small ticket booth.

And that was it.

It was a purely symbolic event whose main usefulness was to sort of remind people that David Beckham’s dream, some six years in the making, was taking another step closer to reality.

“Today is the day the dream of professional soccer in South Florida becomes a reality,” said Mas with a flourish.

No, but it was the day they began razing sad, dilapidated Lockhart, once the premier high school football stadium in Broward County and once the epicenter of South Florida soccer when the Fort Lauderdale Strikers were a big thing from 1977 into the mid-’80s.

An 18,000-seat New Lockhart Stadium will be built on the old place’s boneyard and be Inter Miami’s home for likely its first two seasons in MLS, until the permanent home at Miami Freedom Park is constructed at the old Melreese golf site near Miami International Airport.

It was fitting Wednesday’s “Demolition Ceremony” began a bit late, because everything has run late in the arduous birthing of this team. Now, with the 2020 MLS regular season beginning next March, Inter Miami has less than year to raze the old Lockhart and build a brand new one in its place.

The 64-acre makeover will include the new stadium, a youth academy, a training center, team offices and a public park. The team will remain headquartered in Fort Lauderdale even as it eventually plays its games in Miami.

Mas said the construction schedule calls for the stadium to be flattened and the new foundation set by July, with the new stadium rising by October. It will be modular and prefabricated, making for quicker start-to-finish construction.

Still seems like a ton to get done in around nine months.

“We’re very confident we can get it done and be here for our first home game in March,” said Mas.

There also are doubts about Miami Freedom Park getting done by its 2022 aim, if at all, but Mas called himself “extremely confident” on that one.

He said the first players will be signed by around July, and that a manager (coach) should be in place by September.

This was a forward-looking day of progress in South Florida sports, but also a nostalgic day with bittersweet overtones.

Lockhart Stadium once vibrated with excitement, the home to international stars such as Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas, Gerd Muller, Gordon Banks and Georgie Best. Those were the days before we had the Heat, Marlins or Panthers. The Strikers were a pretty big deal with fiercely loyal following.

Ray Hudson, maybe the greatest Striker of them all and now a popular soccer broadcaster, showed up Wednesday.

“This was home,” he said.

Now Lockhart is in squalor, surrounded by a tall chain-link fence and by piles of metal and concrete rubble. Where the field once was stand chest-high weeds.

“It’s good to see it pulled down,” Hudson said. “This is a celebration of the rebirth.”

Hudson coached the MLS’ old Miami Fusion at Lockhart in 2000-01, but ruled out any thought of coaching Inter Miami.

“It would take Ben Hur’s chariot to drag me back in,” he said.

Tim Robbie also was there, the Strikers’ first club president. He agreed it was sad to see what Lockhart had become, and that the Mas/Beckham team is the right group to engineer the massive new project.

The adjacent Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the long-shuttered old baseball park that once housed New York Yankees spring training, also will be razed rubble and dust. Tall fences block all traffic from nearing the ghost of a ballpark. It is tagged with graffiti. A resident who lives nearby told me buzzards live inside, a perfect symbolism if ever there was.

The two old stadiums are the graveyard on which Inter Miami will become real, and (ready or not) in less than a year.

“This will be the United States’ global team around the world,” said Mas, promising big. “We’re going to field a great team, a winning team. We’re going to do something phenomenal that will unite all of South Florida.”

This has been a long, long time coming.

If Mas can deliver on Beckham’s dream and his own grand promises, it will have been worth the wait.

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