Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Ronaldo has big plans for Fort Lauderdale Strikers

Brazilian great Ronaldo is part owner of the Strikers.
Brazilian great Ronaldo is part owner of the Strikers. AFP/Getty Images

Both Ronaldos made international headlines Friday.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 24th and 25th goals for Real Madrid this season in a 4-1 win over Almeira that extended Madrid’s league-record win streak to 20 games. The team outscored its past four opponents 16-1, and its last loss was Sept.14 to Atletico Madrid.

The Ronaldo news that hit closer to home in South Florida was the announcement that Brazilian legend Ronaldo had joined the Fort Lauderdale Strikers as a part owner. The NASL team was recently taken over by a Brazilian ownership group determined to raise the club’s profile. Attaching Ronaldo’s name to the team certainly does that, as Major League Soccer found out when news that David Beckham was awarded a Miami franchise made global headlines.

Ronaldo’s involvement with the Strikers made headlines all over the United States, in England’s Daily Mail, Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport, Brazilian papers and Asian media.

“I will be very involved with the management of the team and have already started to make introductions that will certainly help us to turn the Strikers into a global powerhouse,” Ronaldo said in a news release. “There are no doubts that the beautiful game is growing exponentially in the U.S., and I guarantee you that the NASL will play a key role in the rise of professional soccer here.”

The news release went on to mention the legacy of the original Strikers team from the 1970s and early ’80s, and the glory days of the original NASL, which featured icons such as Pelé, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer and drew a crowd of 77,691 for a match between the Strikers and the New York Cosmos.

Connecting the names Ronaldo and Pelé to the present-day NASL and Strikers is a nice marketing idea, but it will not impress or bamboozle South Florida’s soccer-savvy fan base. This NASL and that one are alike only in name, and celebrity ownership is in no way a guarantee that more fans will flock to Strikers games.

(Just ask the Dolphins, who count among their owners Gloria Estefan and Serena and Venus Williams, but continue to struggle to fill Sun Life Stadium. And Beckham’s name and iconic image have gotten him only so far in a quest to find a suitable downtown Miami stadium site.)

World-class players and world-class soccer is what will get South Florida fans excited. More than 70,000 show up at Sun Life Stadium to see Real Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, and the Brazilian and Colombian national teams. If the Strikers want to become a household name again, they need to play in a top-flight league with players fans here are excited to see.

Back in the Strikers’ heyday, there was no cable TV. No Premier League, La Liga or Champions League matches on TV. The only soccer local fans could see was the Strikers, and that team happened to have outstanding players with big personalities, so fans showed up. Today, a diehard soccer fan in the United States can watch the world’s best players in the world’s best leagues on TV, so it takes something special to get them to buy tickets for a live match between less-prestigious teams.

Spanish star Raul just joined the New York Cosmos, the NASL team named after the original storied franchise, and that will create some buzz for sure. But will crowds flock to see the Cosmos play the Atlanta Silverbacks or the Carolina RailHawks? That remains to be seen. I have my doubts.

Miami FC, the previous incarnation of this Strikers franchise, had Brazilian star Romario on the team, and even he wasn’t enough to keep the excitement going. They had their hardcore audience of about 3,000 to 4,000, but were unable to build from that.

The NASL is the second-tier league behind MLS in the pyramid of American professional soccer. Average attendance this season was between 3,500 and 5,500 for most of the 10 teams. Indy Eleven led the league with 10,400 per game. The San Antonio Scorpions and Minnesota United drew around 6,500, and the rest of the teams, including the Strikers, were in the 4,000 range.

Fort Lauderdale’s new ownership group vows to invest more money, make the team more “professional” and perhaps find a more glamorous place to play than Lockhart Stadium, which did a fine job of housing the defunct MLS team Miami Fusion and the current Strikers, but does not have any of the bells and whistles of a first-rate professional stadium.

That is good to hear, and I wish them nothing but the best. As a Miami native and longtime soccer fan, I would love to see pro soccer make it big in a city that is so crazy about the sport. But it is a stretch for Ronaldo to suggest the Strikers will become a “global powerhouse” anytime soon. Much work needs to be done.

▪ Copa Campeones at FIU: Argentina’s San Lorenzo will play Colombia’s Atletico Nacional de Medellin on Jan.17 at FIU Stadium. The match is the first annual Copa Campeones de America, hosted by a group called Onside Entertainment.

San Lorenzo won the Copa Libertadores and will play Real Madrid in the Team World Cup in Morocco next week. Atletico Nacional reached the finals of the Copa Sudamericana.

Who’s leading

EPL: Chelsea (36), Manchester City (33), Manchester United (28), West Ham (27), Southampton (26).

La Liga: Real Madrid (39), Barcelona (34), Atletico Madrid (32), Sevilla (29), Valencia (25).

Serie A: Juventus (35), Roma (32), Genoa (26), Sampdoria (25), Napoli (24).

Ligue 1: Marseille (38), PSG (37), Lyon (36), ASSE (32), Bordeaux (31).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (36), Wolfsburg (29), Augsburg (24), Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke (23).

On the tube

Sunday: Juventus vs. Sampdoria (6:30 a.m., BeIN Sport USA), Manchester United vs. Liverpool (8:30 am., NBCSN), Genoa vs. Roma (9 a.m., BeIN Sport USA), Swansea City vs. Tottenham (11 a.m., NBCSN), Atletico Madrid vs. Villarreal (1p.m. ,BeIN Sport USA).

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