Zapata pushes W. Kendall into Miami soccer spotlight

With an eye to a potentia  soccer franchise becoming a reality, Miami-Dade District 11 Commissioner Juan C. Zapata has asked Mayor Carlos Gimenez to propose FIU’s football stadium as a temporary arena for an Major League Soccer team.

His action by a formal memo on Oct. 2 is accompanied by reports that former English soccer star David Beckham is negotiating with investors to locate a new franchise in Miami, using his $25 million purchase option guaranteed by the league from his last MLS contract.

Beckham’s interest in a Miami location was underscored last June, when he toured the FIU campus to weigh its advantages as an interim MLS home field, and resurfaced on Oct. 28 when an AP report from London said he was “nearing” an agreement to field a team in Miami.

“We’ve not had any official notification that David Beckham has chosen Miami for a new Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise,” Mayor Gimenez said in a statement on Oct. 28. “That said, I join the hundreds of thousands soccer fans throughout South Florida who are ready and eagerly waiting for an MLS team to be established in Miami.

“A world-class community like Miami-Dade County, also known as the Gateway to the Americas, would be a fitting home for the world’s most popular sport.”

As this newspaper went to press, a spokesperson for the mayor said Zapata’s proposal was “still under review” while a query to a Zapata spokesperson was answered: “we’re exploring a soccer intense park and youth training center in West Kendall.”

As the winter soccer scene heats up in Kendall and across Miami-Dade County during November, Zapata wants the county to accommodate an MLS franchise, rather than have it go north to Broward, as occurred twice when the 1980s Miami Gatos became the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and in 2001 when the Miami Fusion Football Club moved north.

With the Florida Panthers NHL team having relocated from Miami to Sunrise in West Broward, there is ample precedent for speculation about locating an MLS franchise in a permanent stadium in an area like West Kendall, a hotbed for youth soccer in a predominantly Latin-American soccer oriented population.

Zapata whose recent public comments have focused on creating a “destination” image for West Kendall indicates in his message to the mayor how a Major League Soccer franchise might bring that about, including establishing a temporary “home’ for the team on the FIU campus.

The most ambitious efforts in Miami- Dade County to increase soccer popularity in recent years have focused on West Kendall, primarily with the location of Kendall Soccer Park on SW 127th Avenue north of Kendall Drive with four lighted regulation fields for youth and adult leagues as well high school teams.

During that time, the park also has become the home for the national program to establish “Five-on-Five” Soccer that will host the third annual “Miami Soccer Festival,” Nov. 30-Dec. 1, expected to attract 5,000 from South Florida during two days of tournaments and special events.

“The decision to find a home for a new Major League Soccer franchise is nearing a conclusion,” Zapata said in his message to Gimenez on Oct. 2. “There is speculation that Miami Dade County is the preferred location over other major cities which have put together some extremely attractive offers to lure a potential MLS franchise.”

Zapata wants Gimenez to put together a proposal with FIU as a suggested temporary venue after obtaining a legal ruling from the County Attorney’s Office that the location would qualify for up to $75 million in General Obligation Bond issue funding for economic development.

In addition, Zapata wants to incorporate 160 acres owned by Miami-Dade in West Kendall as a potential training center for both a professional team and a youth soccer academy, as well as a place to host national and international tournaments. Such a move would qualify county participation for Tourism Development tax dollars, his memo stated.

“We have facilities, acreage and potential sources of funding to put together a very competitive package to close this deal,” he said. “Major league soccer combined with an international training facility would be a game changer in our community, and would generate economic development and significant jobs.”

The former Miami Fusion Football Club along with Tampa Bay’s Mutiny became an MLS team that competed from 1998 to 2001 at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, redeveloped as a soccer-specific stadium and “ready for Miami to call home when they joined MLS,” according to a MLS website statement.

South Florida’s team had major success in its short time as a franchise, particularly in the last year of existence in 2001 when it clinched the one and only trophy, the MLS Supporters’ Shield, the MLS added, noting, “The Fusion were then littered with top talent from across the globe as Englishmen Ian Bishop and Ian Woan starred, as did Colombian Diego Serna and Honduran Alex Pineda Chacon.” The latter scored 19 goals in 25 games for Miami and took the MLS golden boot for 2001. Miami made the MLS playoff three out of four years before leaving the MLS in 2001.

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