Professional Soccer in Florida Began in 1972 with the introduction of the Miami Gatos, led by players Warren Archibald, Roberto Aguirre and Willie Evans. The team played in the US first division, the North American Soccer League (NASL). After one year as the Gatos the team became the Miami Toros. The Toros had a very successful 1974 campaign in which they made it to the championship game led by 1st team all-stars Roberto Aguirre and Ronnie Sharp.
In 1975, the NASL expanded to the Tampa Bay area by way of the Tampa Bay Rowdies who played their home games at Tampa Stadium. Arriving a year before the NFL Buccaneers, the Rowdies were an instant hit in the market drawing large crowds and winning the Soccer Bowl in the team’s inaugural season.
The following year, the Rowdies would attract one of the most famous footballers in the world to Florida. Rodney Marsh has always been a larger than life figure. His exploits in England with QPR and Manchester City were legendary, but in early 1976 he had fallen out with Citizens Manager Tony Book. Marsh presence elevated the Rowdies profile worldwide and began an incredible rivalry with the New York Cosmos.
In 1976, the Rowdies eliminated the Pele led Cosmos from the NASL Playoffs behind Marsh, Derek Smithurst and the coaching of Eddie Firmani. However, the next season the Cosmos attracted Firmani away from Florida and his replacement was another accomplished coach, Gordon Jago. Jago had managed Rodney Marsh at QPR, and was finishing up a successful spell at Millwall whom has had led to promotion in 1976. Under Jago’s stewardship, the Rowdies again made the Soccer Bowl final in both 1978 and 1979 but were defeated on both occasions.
Despite the lack of Championship trophies after 1975, the Rowdies by 1979 were firmly established as one of the biggest names ever in American club soccer. Down the road in Fort Lauderdale, the South Florida entry into the NASL was also gaining a foothold nationally.
In 1977, after 5 years of playing in Miami, the Toros moved to Broward County and became the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers were rapidly to become one of the cornerstone teams in the NASL, and had the league’s best Regular Season record in the team’s first season. The Strikers’ new home, Lockhart Stadium, had to be expanded from 8,000 to 11,000 seats to make room for the large crowds, and later to 15,000. On the road, a playoff game between the Strikers and New York Cosmos drew 77,691, an NASL record.
The high-point of the Strikers’ time in the NASL came in 1980 with an appearance in the league’s championship, the Soccer Bowl against the New York Cosmos. In the seven year lifetime from 1977-1983 of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL, South Florida soccer fans saw many of the best players in the world play in their own backyard. These players included global soccer legends like Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas, Gerd Muller, George Best, Gordon Banksand Strikers favorites Ray Hudson, Ken Fogerty, Jan Van Beveren, and Colin Fowles. The NASL Strikers made the playoffs in each of their seven seasons. The Fort Lauderdale Sun replaced the Strikers at Lockhart Stadium and won the United Soccer League (USL) Championship in 1984 before the league folded in 1985.
Meanwhile, the New England Teamen moved south in 1980 to become the Jacksonville Teamen. From 1980 to 1982, Florida had three NASL teams and a robust rivalry existed between each of the teams. After the 1982 season the Teamen dropped down to the second division American Soccer League (ASL) and won the 1983 title. The last season for the Teamen was in 1984, when they competed against then Fort Lauderdale Sun and other teams in the USL.
Throughout the 1980s, Tampa Bay remained one of the cornerstones areas for soccer in the US. The Rowdies continued play after the collapse of the NASL in various professional leagues. Led by former NASL stars Steve Wegerle and Arnie Mausser, Tampa Bay continued its robust tradition. The team was coached first by Rodney Marsh and then by Ken Fogerty.
In 1988, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers returned led by many of the Strikers from the NASL team including, Arnie Mausser, Nene Cubillas and Ray Hudson, this time in the American Soccer League (ASL, 1988-1989) and then the American Professional Soccer League (APSL). The team was also coached by former Striker Thomas Rongen from 1989-1994. During this period the Strikers enjoyed great success, finishing first in their division four consecutive seasons, including a National Championship in the 1989 season. Several other professional teams surfaced during this period including the Orlando Lions, Miami Freedom, Miami Sharks, Coral Springs Kicks, Cocoa Expos, Florida Stars and the Boca Raton Sabres.
After the US successfully hosted the 1994 World Cup, first division professional soccer returned to Florida thanks to the Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer (MLS). The Mutiny, coached by Thomas Rongen had the best record in MLS in the league’s inaugural season of 1996. The next several years the Rowdies attracted top players to the area such as Carlos Valderrama, Steve Ralston, Dominic Kinnear, Roy Lassiter and Giuseppe Galderisi. The Mutiny made the playoffs four times between 1996 and 2001.
Professional soccer resurfaced in South Florida with the Miami Fusion of MLS beginning in 1998. The Fusion spent 4 seasons playing at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium. The team made the playoffs three times. In 2001 the team won the Supporters’ Shield and was Eastern Conference Champions. In keeping with the tradition of great soccer talent playing in South Florida, many stars played for the Fusion including Ian Bishop, Pablo Mastroeni, Jim Rooney and Carlos Valderrama. The Fusion also had the privilege being coached by former Strikers legend, Ray Hudson in 2000 and 2001.
Sadly for Florida soccer fans, the MLS choose to contract both the Tampa Bay and South Florida area franchises after the 2001 MLS Season. Between 1997 and 1999 the Jacksonville Cyclones competed in the second division A-League, but ceased operations before the 2000 A-League season.
The next chapter for professional soccer came in 2006 from the creation of Miami FC of the United Soccer Leagues (USL). The team joined the new North American Soccer League (NASL) in 2009 and re-branded as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2011. FC Tampa Bay began play in 2010 and featured Jeremy Christie, one only six foreign players registered to an American club to be chosen to play in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Both FC Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale Strikers currently compete in the USSF sanctioned second division NASL. In 2011, Orlando City SC was formed and joined the third division USLPRO.
Tomorrow, FC Tampa Bay travels to Fort Lauderdale to renew what has been one of the most intense in state rivalries in American soccer history.