The Biscayne Times

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Jul 18th
Future Fútbol PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
September 2014

Even if David Beckham never sets foot in Miami again, soccer is here to stay

Cover_shotThe clouds above Little Haiti Soccer Park darkened and swirled as dozens of teenagers raced up and down a grassy field, chasing a ball. Known as the Little Haiti Fútbol Club, the team attracted a crowd of around 500 people when they defeated Coconut Grove FC by a score of 1 to 0 in late May. A week or so later, former Manchester United player and aspiring Major League Soccer team owner David Beckham paid a surprise visit to the park, with media in tow, where Little Haiti FC players ran drills.

But on this day, July 17, most people who sat in the stands weren’t here to watch Little Haiti FC practice. They were there to watch adult dignitaries play.

A few blocks away, the Caribbean Market was celebrating its reopening after 16 years of being shuttered. Besides Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, city Commissioner Keon Hardemon, and a host of other South Florida politicians, VIP guests included Haitian Prime Minister Luarent Lamothe and various other delegates from Haiti, who happened to be in town for a Haitian diaspora conference in North Miami.

After the Little Haiti FC would finish their practice session, two adult teams were scheduled to take the field: one made up of Haitians residing in South Florida, the other composed of politicians from Haiti. Haitian President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly would be among the players.

That was the plan anyway. Instead torrents of water began falling from the sky. In spite of the downpour, Little Haiti FC kept right on playing. Then the first thunder clap boomed and the team was ordered inside. Seconds later, most of the wet teenagers were sheltering in the park’s covered grandstand with VIPs, television reporters, friends of the adult players, and members of the sizable Kriz Rara band.

Most people were standing by now as they struggled to find a dry spot. As the wind grew, it sent more rain under the stadium roof and onto the shifting band of humans.

Stuck in the monsoon with nothing else to do, Kriz Rara decided to play. The rhythmic sounds they created with their trumpets, drums, and maracas entertained the soaked crowd and seemed to placate the weather gods. The storm subsided. A giant rainbow hovered overhead. Despite the field’s soaked condition, the two adult teams took the field, with Martelly conspicuously absent. It was now dusk. All that was needed for the game to commence was illumination from the towering field lights.

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But the lights didn’t turn on. Lara DeSouza, deputy parks director for the City of Miami, later told the BT that a lightning strike had shorted out the lighting system. Much of the damage has since been repaired. But on that night, no one knew what was going on. The adult players stayed on the field for 20 more minutes before dejectedly walking to the park’s community center.

Little Haiti Soccer Park, also known as Emmanuel “Manno” Sanon Park, has been in the news multiple times in past four months. Completed in 2008, the park cost the city and Miami-Dade County $36.9 million to build. Since its opening, there have been occasional traveling soccer matches and intermittent pick-up soccer games. But for close to four years, the park’s only consistent customer was the Little Haiti Optimist Club, which used the 15-acre park for American football games and practice sessions.

That changed this past April, when Edison High School coach Gomez Laleau, Ransom Everglades coach Dave Villano, Miami mayoral aide Pat Santangelo, and other local soccer coaches like Samuel Prumier, as well as community leaders teamed up and formed Little Haiti FC.

Most competitive travel youth soccer teams are costly enterprises that cater to families able to spend as much as $5000 per year on fees and uniforms. Little Haiti FC is different, Villano says.

With the help from private donations and foundations, including the University of Miami’s School of Education and Center for Ethics and Public Service, Little Haiti FC has become the only travel youth soccer team in Florida that serves kids from poor, inner-city families. Most of its roughly 40 members, ranging in age from 14 to 17, live in Little Haiti, although a few players commute by bus from North Miami and Miami Gardens. All come from working-class families who recently immigrated to the United States from Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Caribbean.

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Since that game in May, however, the Little Haiti FC hasn’t played another match on its home turf. One reason: the City of Miami charged the club $349 to use the facilities. That’s pretty costly for a club dependent on donations.

“If you were to say, ‘Where am I going to see a youth soccer match in the City of Miami?’ This is it,” says Villano who, besides helping out Little Haiti FC, also coaches the Coconut Grove FC. “And you know how many games they’ve had here? One.”

Receiving far more media attention than the soccer park or Little Haiti FC is another fútbol endeavor: David Beckham’s campaign to build yet another soccer facility, a very big and very expensive one. Beckham and his partners --  American Idol creator Simon Fuller and telecommunications tycoon (and former Bolivian Fútbol Federation marketing manager) Marcelo Claure -- have had some highly publicized setbacks in their efforts to secure a waterfront site for Miami Beckham United’s stadium.

The momentum seemingly has dissipated, with Beckham heading back to his home in Los Angeles, Claure becoming CEO of Sprint in Kansas, and Fuller taking up new entertainment projects. But the effort to build a Miami soccer stadium isn’t over, assures Tadd Schwartz, president of Schwartz Media Strategies and spokesman for MBU, although the aspiring franchise is now looking beyond waterfront, publicly owned land in downtown Miami.

The vicinity of downtown Miami, where land is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, remains MBU’s preferred area. “They would like to focus on the urban core and they’re continuing to do exactly that. They consider Miami to be a growing urban city,” Schwartz says, adding, “Ten years ago, Miami didn’t have a downtown. Today we have one of the most prominent downtowns in South Florida, if not the world. All of that is conducive to international soccer.”“They’re looking at a number of sites,” Schwartz says. “What’s more important to them is what’s acceptable to the fans. Nothing has really changed since they started.”

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Despite past statements from Major League Soccer’s commissioner that a stadium in downtown Miami was the only acceptable home for a Miami MLS team, Schwartz says Miami Beckham United is willing to look at other sites throughout Miami-Dade County. “They’re considering all options,” Schwartz assures. “A number of parties have approached them.”

If Miami Beckham United is successful in its quest, it’ll become the second MLS team representing Miami in the FIFA-affiliated league’s 21-year history. The previous team was the Miami Fusion, which was based not in Miami, but in Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium. Founded in 1998, it lost millions of dollars before MLS, also hemorrhaging cash, shut down the team in 2001, along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

“Miami Fusion’s ownership was so bad, they did everything wrong,” says Tom Mulroy, president of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a North American League soccer team now playing at Lockhart Stadium. “It was a big black eye for South Florida.” (A North American League team is similar to a AAA team in professional baseball, Mulroy explains.)

Undaunted by the Miami Fusion’s failure, Claure, founder of the Miami-based cell-phone distribution company Brightstar, attempted to bring Barcelona FC to the Magic City in 2009. That deal fell apart, but Claure soon became acquainted with Beckham. When Beckham retired, Claure flew the soccer superstar to Miami for the first time.

“Marcelo Claure has said that his passion is his family, his work, and soccer,” notes Schwartz. “He would love to see a soccer team here.”

Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami have a notorious history for generously subsidizing professional sports teams, but subsidies are not part of MBU’s game plan, Schwartz insists. If they decide to build a stadium on publicly owned land “they will pay fair market value in terms of the lease.” As for construction of the stadium: “They will fund it 100 percent.”

So without subsidies, can MBU survive in a downtown location? Or should the stadium be located in an area where it just might be better appreciated, such as Sweetwater, Kendall, Doral, or perhaps Broward?

And what about travel youth soccer clubs like Little Haiti FC? Could they be the key to a professional soccer team’s success in South Florida?


BCoverStory_4usiness has been good to Teofilo “Coco” Cubillas.

Eight years ago, Cubillas opened Brickell Soccer Rooftop on top of a parking garage at 444 Brickell Ave., where a couple of tennis courts once existed. “It was sort of dead space,” he remembers. “We thought, ‘Why not take advantage of the space? The view is nice. The location is key. It’s something different.’”

Soccer wasn’t so popular when he first started, Cubillas says. His closest competition back then was Midtown Soccer in Wynwood, which opened up roughly at the same time Brickell Soccer Rooftop did. Today, there are at least five private soccer rental facilities operating in the downtown and Wynwood areas. “It has picked up,” Cubillas says. “We get a lot of college students from UM. On weekends kids want to do their birthday parties here.” His most loyal customers, however, are the chefs, waiters, bartenders, and other members of downtown-Brickell’s hospitality industry. To accommodate their hours, Brickell Soccer stays open on weekdays until 2:00 a.m. “We have been really fortunate,” he beams.

Born in Peru, Cubillas grew up in South Florida. His father used to play for the first incarnation of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the 1970s. He also used to work for the Miami Fusion. But when it comes to youth soccer, Broward still has a considerable edge over Miami-Dade. Says Cubillas: “I would say they [Broward] have more organized kids programs, more academies, more clubs.”

Lou Confessore, founder of the Dade Youth Soccer Association and head of the Coral Estates Soccer Club, says professional soccer teams in the U.S. are dependent on young soccer fans as a support base. Much of that base comes from youth soccer clubs or school soccer teams. “Where Beckham grew up and all of these other European big shots grew up, the professional teams support youth soccer,” Confessore says. “In the United States it’s upside down. Here, teams like the Fort Lauderdale Strikers depend on the young soccer players to come to the stands.

CoverStory_5As for soccer in public parks, or soccer programs, the City of Miami is far behind, soccer advocates tell the BT. Of Miami’s 127 parks, 20 have baseball fields and eight have football fields. Only seven city parks have soccer fields, including Biscayne Park (next to Temple Israel in Wynwood) and Legion Park (in the Upper Eastside). Of those parks with soccer fields, only Little Haiti Soccer Park has stadium-style seating.

In contrast, Miami-Dade County has 25 parks with soccer fields, mainly in the western part of the county. The 515-acre Amelia Earhart Park, located north of Hialeah, can host up to five soccer games at once, Confessore says. Kendall Soccer Park’s five fields are covered with artificial turf, allowing for continuous play without worry of the usual wear and tear on natural grass fields such as Little Haiti Soccer Park.

“The county gets it,” Dave Villano says. “Other municipalities get it, especially the affluent ones. Pinecrest gets it. Key Biscayne gets it. Miami Shores gets it. The City of Miami doesn’t get it.”

Miami Shores has about 200 kids in its soccer program, says Maurice Johnson, the village’s athletics assistant supervisor. For the past eight years, David Ocampo has been running the village’s youth travel soccer operation, the Shores Soccer Club.

CoverStory_7“A lot of clubs [in South Florida], they were telling me that I was wasting my time in Miami Shores, that there was no demand for it over there,” remembers Ocampo who, like most Florida Youth Soccer Association-affiliated coaches, operates as a private contractor. “And it was true. It was hard for the first five years.” By 2010, enrollment started picking up. From there, more and more kids flooded the Shores Soccer Club every year. Ocampo attributes the growth to an influx of affluent families, many from Latin America, moving to Miami Shores.

Officials from other municipalities along the Biscayne Corridor tell the BT they’ve also seen interest in soccer increase from juveniles and adults. “I would say that North Miami is definitely a soccer city,” says Patrick Corker, North Miami’s parks director.

Home to a significant Haitian population, North Miami is still without a traveling soccer team. The city, however, has been steadily expanding its soccer facilities and programs. Back in 2007, it converted Ben Franklin Park’s softball fields into soccer fields. Soccer fields have also been added to Claude Pepper and Cagni parks.

North Miami Athletic Stadium, near Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus and host of the well-attended adult Haiti Cup games, has artificial turf. The city also has youth in-house soccer programs that sometimes play against teams from neighboring cities, says Pam Solomon, North Miami’s spokeswoman.

(North Miami even had its own soccer scandal. Last year former North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre paid a $7000 settlement to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics for reserving North Miami Athletic Stadium for his private clubs at least 78 times without paying any fees while he was in office.)

Paulette Murphy, parks director for North Miami Beach, says demand for soccer in her city has tripled in the past eight years. Fulford Park and Allen Park are often filled with people playing soccer, she observes. For juveniles between the ages of 5 and 18, Patricia A. Mishcon Athletic Field is home to the Soccer Paradise Fútbol Club. “We’re constantly bombarded with people wanting to play pick-up soccer games, to form leagues, who want to play soccer in the evening or on the weekends,” she says.

CoverStory_8Aventura city manager Eric Soroka did not return an e-mail from Biscayne Times inquiring about soccer programs and facilities in the City of Excellence. According to the city’s website, Aventura’s parks department offers soccer programs for kids between the ages of 5 and 14 at Founders Park and Waterways Park for residents.

There aren’t any juvenile travel soccer clubs operating within Aventura’s boundaries. But that doesn’t mean the demand isn’t there. Gerardo Pandolfi, head coach of the Aventura Soccer Academy, says he shares the fields of Ives Estates Park in unincorporated Miami-Dade just west of Aventura with two other soccer clubs. While some of their players come from various unincorporated neighborhoods and south Broward, most of the kids come from Aventura, another affluent community with a growing South American population. In his own club of 40 kids, Pandolfi estimates that 90 percent come from Aventura.

Confessore of the Coral Estates Soccer Club, who has been involved with soccer in Miami-Dade County since the 1960s, says if he were MBU, he’d make an offer to FIU to share the college football stadium at its main campus in Sweetwater. Besides being near the Florida Turnpike and other major roadways, Panthers Stadium is huge. “It has seats for 17,000 people and room for more,” he says.With soccer’s popularity growing by leaps and bounds in northeast Miami-Dade, might Miami Beckham United want to consider building their stadium in that area? For example, there is Biscayne Landing in North Miami, a wide expanse of city-owned land east of Biscayne Boulevard scheduled for private development. “We have 182 acres of undeveloped land we can show!” blurts North Miami spokeswoman Pam Solomon at the mere mention of an MLS stadium. “There is development opportunity in the north end of the county and I think the diversity of our community would definitely support soccer.”

But Confessore suspects that MBU’s investors and Major League Soccer are blinded by the hype surrounding downtown Miami’s success. “They want the glitz, the glamour, the nightlife,” he says. “That’s the only reason they want to put it in downtown. If they could, they’d put it over on South Beach.”


ICoverStory_9n the late 1990s, Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele became obsessed with an idea. He was going to get the city to seize 60 acres of factories, warehouses, repair shops, houses, apartments, and trailers in Little Haiti and build a grand soccer park worthy of use by a professional soccer team. His effort was supported by Haitian-American activists all over South Florida.

It was also opposed by area business owners who didn’t want to see their livelihoods demolished. That opposition, as well as rising cost estimates, shrank the park to 45 acres. Then to its current size of 15 acres. Teele himself never got to see the park’s completion. Facing multiple corruption charges, he shot himself in the lobby of the Miami Herald building in 2005.

Although its creation was somewhat controversial, locals appreciated the park as soon as it opened. Today, between 75 and 100 people visit the park daily, DeSouza says, particularly for walking and use of the exercise path.

“We never had something this extravagant,” says Rich Luce, owner of a Little Haiti tattoo parlor called 1801 Inc. and a volunteer American football coach for the Little Haiti Optimist Club. “When it was built, everyone drew to it immediately. It was like, ‘Wow, we finally got something.’ That was the thing for us.”

But for Gomez Laleau, the soccer coach at nearby Edison High, the existence of Little Haiti Soccer Park was bittersweet. “For a long time,” he says, “the only sport that was allowed to play here was American football.”

Laleau finally decided to do something about it. He contacted Villano for advice on how to start a soccer club in Little Haiti. Then he contacted Pat Santangelo, an aide to Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, for guidance on how to form a club at the park. Soon Santangelo and Villano both became part of the effort. Even Confessore volunteered his services, mainly on the bureaucratic end. (Owing to a 15-mile distance requirement between clubs enacted by Florida Youth Soccer Association, Little Haiti FC is a satellite club of Coral Estates Soccer Club.) Villano stresses that Regalado has been supportive of Little Haiti FC as well.

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The Little Haiti FC doesn’t just offer soccer training. Thanks to grants from UM, the club also provides tutors, college counselors, legal immigration counseling, and healthcare services.

Laleau notes that a student playing in travel soccer is more likely to obtain a college soccer scholarship than someone just playing high school soccer. “Now, the first question they ask you is for your GPA, and did you pass FCAT, and what’s your SAT score,” he says. “So we take that to heart. We want to make sure that when they play, they do well in school academically.”

Adds Villano: “There is no other club like this anywhere in Florida, or probably the country, which is a club in an urban setting that supports an underserved community free of charge with high-quality training, which has a tutorial component and support services on top of that. If it exists, I don’t know about it yet.”

When Beckham paid a visit to Little Haiti Park this past June, a member of the soccer star’s entourage indicated that Miami Beckham United wanted to help the Little Haiti FC, too. “Hopefully they will follow through on that,” Villano says.

Even without a boost from Beckham, improvements are coming to Little Haiti Soccer Park. Although it cost close to $37 million to build, the facility was built without locker rooms. “Currently, we’re working with CIP [capital improvement projects] on plans to add locker rooms at the park to allow hosting more soccer tournaments onsite,” DeSouza says. “The project is still in the design phase, so there is no confirmed cost on construction.”

Villano would like Little Haiti Soccer Park to receive top priority for artificial turf: “If the City of Miami wanted to show support for youth soccer in Miami, then bump us up to Number One for artificial turf on the field so we can use it year round, day and night, without wear and tear.”

As things stand now, the Little Haiti FC may lose access to Little Haiti Soccer Park in December for four months as the grass replenishes. During that period, “we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Villano admits.

On a recent August day, the Little Haiti FC’s volunteers have more immediate concerns. They need to order more uniforms. They also have to figure out a way to transport Little Haiti FC team members outside the neighborhood for travel games. The parents of most team members work on weekends.

At the end of a recent practice session, Laleau lectures them on the importance of getting good grades in school and how, no matter where an individual player was from, they were all family. One player raises his hand. After a hard day of drilling and playing ball in the hot sun, he wants to know about water.

“As far as the water cooler, we’re going to get that,” Laleau promises. “I don’t want you guys using the water fountain.”

Until the water cooler comes, however, the water fountain is the only source of liquid the kids have.

“Hopefully we’ll get some assistance to solve this problem,” Laleau tells BT. “It’s tough, man. It’s tough. Eventually, we’ll work something out.”

 

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