It was a big day for those sitting near the podium at the Crowne Plaza in Fort Myers Tuesday as representatives from the new SW Florida Soccer Club and United Soccer Leagues (USL) announced a new elite-level men's soccer team based in Fort Myers.
It also was a big deal for the players and new head coach, who had been with the Cape Coral Hurricanes before leaving for stiffer competition.
For the USL, which also owns the Player Development League (PDL), the region and the league are a perfect match.
From left, PDL president Tim Holt, SW Florida assistant coach Felix Acosta, SW Florida head coach Mick Whitewood, Jeff Butzke, SW Florida Soccer Club owner, general manager Teresa Howe and Jeff McRaney at the announcement of the the new SW Florida Soccer Club to begin play in 2013 at Crowne Plaza in Fort Myers Tuesday.
"This is a market we have long coveted for the USL and PDL. There has been no shortage of suitors," said Tim Holt, president of United Soccer Leagues.
But it wasn't until Jeff Butzke and his group, including general manager Teresa Howe, submitted its business plan and vision that the PDL was sold.
"We have a vision for Southwest Florida that's more than soccer. We want to provide an opportunity for these men to fulfill their dreams," Butzke said. "Maybe not as a professional player, maybe as an administrator, maybe in marketing that will help them succeed in life."
Part of that vision is to develop soccer by engaging the fan base and teaching the sport to even its youngest fans. A program called "Happy Feet" will teach the game to preschoolers and it will be visiting nursery schools this week.
Happy Feet is a mobile soccer clinic for children ages 2 through 6, that uses a "story time with a soccer ball" approach, according to the Happy Feet Website.
Among those who took the podium was Mick Whitewood, former Ida Baker head boys' soccer coach and former Cape Coral Hurricanes coach who will lead this group.
"To be a part of USL, PDL is phenomenal. We plan to put out a team that is competitive off the bat, promote our talent here and build this organization so our players get the recognition they deserve," Whitewood said. "For me, that's massive."
The Hurricanes, a team that played an exhibition schedule with mostly local players, had a successful season, which team goalkeeper Derrick Hackett said is a testament to the talent in the area.
"We just need something past high school, past college at the next level for the guys to come play with," said Hackett, who played for Evangelical Christian and Florida Tech in college.
Halfway through the summer, the players and Whitewood decided the Hurricanes wasn't for them and searched for alternatives.
"We saw a better opportunity and decided to stick with coach Mick. We liked the direction he was taking us," Hackett said.
SW Florida Soccer Club will play in a division made up of other Florida teams starting in spring 2013. It will play a 16-game schedule and aim to compete in the U.S. Open Cup. It has not decided on a home field.
The team is having a contest to determine the team's nickname - Adrenaline, Thunder or Dynamite - with one person who submits the winning nickname winning $1,000. It will offer season ticket packages starting as low as $35.
The PDL, which has players mostly 23 and younger, has more than 70 teams throughout North America and the Caribbean and Holt said it is considered the top developmental league in America.
Holt said over the last six years, more than two-thirds of the players drafted into the MLS have played in the PDL.
"It's a destination league for the premiere non-professional players in this country," Holt said.
Tryouts are scheduled for Feb. 2-3 and 16-17, 2013. For more information, visit www.swfloridasoccer.com.