Spring training will get an early start in Manatee County next year.
And it will feature an altogether different ball.
Major League Soccer made it official Thursday, announcing six of its teams will train for the 2014 season at IMG Academy in Manatee County.
The Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, FC Dallas, New England Revolution and Toronto FC will train and compete against each other in a series of friendlies, along with international clubs, from late January until the end of February.
"We considered several locations to serve as the Eastern home for the preseason and, with consult from our clubs, we chose IMG Academy for the combination of its world-class facilities, ideal weather and engaged community," said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS' executive vice president of competition and game operations.
The soccer invasion will overlap baseball spring training, an annual rite for the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton. The Pirates, who will train at Pirate City in east Bradenton and play exhibition games downtown at McKechnie Field for the 45th consecutive year, will report in mid-February.
IMG announced the one-year partnership with MLS in October.
"We are thrilled to be named the official eastern hub of the MLS preseason," said Scott Dean, IMG's director of soccer. "While we remain a leader in player development, we continue to evolve as the pre-eminent event destination for all levels of the game."
As part of the partnership, IMG will not charge MLS teams to use its facilities, and 25 percent of net proceeds from the games will be donated to the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., according to Herald files. Ticket prices for the games have not been announced.
The Manatee County Tourist Development Council also unanimously approved a $125,000 budget item pegged for sports public relations promotions for the IMG-MLS partnership.
Each game will be live-streamed, and MLS and IMG are working on a couple of television broadcasts, said Gary Pluchino, vice president of business development for IMG Performance, but no broadcast agreements have been reached.
"We are thrilled to be a part of this unique relationship that will put the Bradenton Area on a national stage and no doubt enhance our market share globally. Initiatives like this allow us to continue to drive new dollars into our community and create opportunities for growth," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
IMG Academy's 450-acre campus features a 12-field professional soccer complex, as well as the new IMG Academy Stadium, which seats 5,000 and boasts a broadcast-ready press and hospitality box with coach, press and radio rooms as well as VIP suites.
The 19th MLS regular season begins March 8.