Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Let’s hope Miami’s latest minor-league soccer club heads in right direction

While South Florida soccer fans twiddle their thumbs waiting for David Beckham’s Major League Soccer project to materialize, yet another minor-league club has been launched by an enthusiastic owner banking on Miami’s international flavor and passion for the sport.

The latest Miami soccer experiment is called the Miami Fusion, but it has no connection with the MLS franchise that went belly up in 2001. This incarnation of the Fusion will play in the 78-team National Premier Soccer League, the fourth tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. It will be a member of the league’s Sunshine Conference and play home games at Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah.

Ferdinando “Ferdi” de Mattaeis, who played for the New York Cosmos in the early 1980s, is the coach.

The new club was formally introduced Thursday in typical South Florida soccer style, at a nice restaurant (Wynwood’s Made in Italy), with a high-energy host and women in short skirts modeling the team jerseys.

Owner Venanzio Cipollitti has an impressive résumé. His company, The Inteligensa Group, provides one-third of the bank cards in Latin America and is ranked the eighth-largest producer in the world of Visa and MasterCard cards.

In other words, he has the financial means to sustain a minor-league soccer club, even if it doesn’t create much revenue, which they rarely do in this market.

Look no further than Miami United, South Florida’s other NPSL team. What? You didn’t realize we had an NPSL team? Well, we do. Not only that, Miami United won the Sunshine Conference last season and traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to play in the regional final in front of 9,000 fans.

Cipollitti was involved with that team but branched off to form the Fusion. He brought along 10 players (including his son, Diego) and de Mattaeis. Most of the other players on the roster came from local colleges and other minor-league teams. Two exceptions are Carlos Salazar, who played in the Colombian league and for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and 36-year-old Emilano Bonazzoli, who played in Italy for Sampdoria, Fiorentina and Parma.

The Fusion opens its inaugural season Sunday against Miami United at 6 p.m. at Flamingo Park in Miami Beach.

“This is an ambitious, long-term project,” the owner said. “We have to be patient. Someday we’re going to challenge the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the New York Cosmos, and we’ll have El Clasico against Miami United every year. We want a derby with the other Miami team and with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.”

OK, so maybe it’s a bit of a reach to refer to the crosstown Fusion-United NPSL game as “El Clasico.” But you can’t fault the guy for dreaming. Every owner who starts up a team here enters with great optimism.

Ken Horowitz did in 1997 with the MLS Miami Fusion. Traffic Sports did with Romario on the Miami FC roster. And the new Strikers ownership group, which includes Brazilian star Ronaldo, also opened with a fancy news conference and big dreams.

The reality is that South Floridians are crazy for international soccer — highest U.S. World Cup TV ratings, sellouts of 70,000-plus at Sun Life Stadium for friendlies — but have not proved to be so supportive of local minor-league efforts.

Nobody knows that better than longtime local promotor Tom Mulroy, who most recently was president of the Strikers. He was hired as a consultant for the new Fusion. So far, he is impressed with Fusion management.

“They are being very realistic about crawling, walking, then running, step by step, doing it right,” Mulroy said. “So many people come into town and just don’t do it right. This group seems to have proper ownership, the sport part down, having Ferdi, who played for the Cosmos. I see them with the proper plan and moving in the right direction.”

Jose Sotolongo of the Miami Dade Sports Commission agreed: “We get a lot of people that call us with the next great idea … everything you can imagine, from A to Z. But when I met with [Cipollitti], I got a different feeling. He had done his homework.”

Let’s hope so.

▪ UM, MLS fans unite: The Southern Legion (a Miami MLS supporters club) has joined a UM fan group in support of building a soccer/football stadium on the former Orange Bowl site.

A petition titled “Support David Beckham Soccer Stadium at Former Orange Bowl Site, And Bring UM Football Back Home” has generated over 500 signatures so far.

Who’s leading

MLS: East — New England and DC (17), New York (13). West — Dallas and Vancouver (17), Seattle (16).

NASL: New York (11), Tampa Bay (8), Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta (7).

English Premier League: Chelsea (83), Manchester City and Arsenal (70), Man U (65), Liverpool (61).

La Liga: Barcelona (87), Real Madrid (85), Atletico Madrid (76), Valencia (72), Sevilla (69).

Serie A: Juventus (79), Roma (64), Lazio (63), Napoli (59), Fiorentina (52).

Ligue 1: PSG (77), Lyon (71), Monaco (65), ASSE and Marseille (60).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (76), Wolfsburg (62), Monchengladbach (60), Bayer (58), Schalke (45).

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