BAYSHORE GARDENS -- A thick fog might have made seeing soccer a challenge last Wednesday, but the fans were clearly present and cheering at IMG Academy.
A chorus of oohs and aahs found their way through the fog when Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio split the defense, letting off a low, hard sneaky shot only to be blocked by D.C. United's goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra early in the match. Eventually, Toronto's Bright Dike scored in the 85th minute, bringing the crowd to stomp their feet and cheer for the lone goal of the night.
No matter who they are rooting for, fans are enjoying having pro soccer at IMG Academy, 5500 34th St. W,
and look forward to more. Whether that will happen and what it might look like remains to be seen as MLS and IMG evaluate this year's partnership and the fans' response to the events.
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Joe and Jen Rogers of Bradenton brought their kids Joe Joe, Maitlyn and Charlie to see both Wednesday's match and Saturday's match with the United and Chicago Fire. They'd love to come back for more.
"I like it," said Joe Joe Rogers, who plays soccer at the Anna Maria Island Community Center. "It's a nice place to have it -- fantastic."
His father, Joe, came away with an appreciation for the sport after watching live game action in his hometown.
"I watched the whole game intensely," he said. "Watching it on TV, I won't watch it as much. It's different being here watching it live."
The majority of fans interviewed by the Herald found that preseason MLS soccer at IMG was a major bonus in planning family time.
Vaughn Heym of Harrisburg, Pa., was visiting his sister Kathy Heym of Brandon. They were looking for things to do and found a Groupon deal for the games. It was perfect since he's a huge soccer fan, following just about every pro league and tracking top players who transfer to Europe.
Now Kathy Heym's boyfriend, Scott Graves, is becoming a fan.
"I really enjoy watching soccer. It's one of those games that's a bit of a chess match," Graves said. "It's just a different pace than other sports."
IMG Academy's director of soccer Scott Dean is impressed with how many fans are coming out -- despite rain on the first night and fog during a Wednesday doubleheader. "From an MLS perspective, it really broadens the fan base," Dean said. "Now you're going to see whether it's the full spectrum -- young kids seeing their first MLS game, or a retired couple here because it's a great thing to do on an afternoon or evening."
The extended preseason at IMG Academy has featured six MLS teams plus international clubs for exhibitions. If this one-year deal impresses the league, IMG is poised to have a long-term deal for all Eastern Conference teams to train and play in its state-of-the-art stadium and to add more events.
IMG and tourism officials at Powel Crosley Estate on Thursday laid out future preseason games for MLS and team officials. More advance time would allow a greater reach to club support groups like the United's La Barra Brava, allowing fans to fill the stadium with soccer chants and a festive atmosphere.
"Hopefully it does become that destination for their fans, and gives them a reason to come down to vacation in our area and see great soccer and see what we have to offer," Dean said.
An average 1,500 fans attended each game, according to IMG Academy, and about 5,000 turned out for Saturday's United-Fire game, a near-capacity crowd.
"We were really unsure about an afternoon Wednesday game and the type of turnout. Then to see a lot of community people show up kind of supports the fact what we in the community are trying to do to bring the event in," Dean said.
MLS: a destination
Toronto FC season ticket-holder Stuart Leach had a family vacation planned with his three kids -- Rowan, Juliette and Charlotte -- to see his parents vacationing here from England. When he found out that his team was playing here, it was an easy decision to get the family together for a night out between exploring Anna Maria Island's beaches, kayaking, parasailing and shopping.
In soccer, training camp usually splits the squads around the world throughout February. For the Leaches, they were happy they had a first glance of their club for the year, which included midfielder Michael Bradley. (Full disclosure: This Toronto family would have much preferred they could see Englishman Jermain Defoe rather than the American.)
"It's also good to see the youth players that they bring along, either the ones they just recently signed or the draft picks," said Leach, wearing a team hat that resembled red and white Troll doll hair. "If they bring any of the U-18, U-19 players in, the diehards want to see those guys, especially in Canada because they're the Canadian players and you want to see them progress to the national team. A lot of times events like this is the only time you get to see those guys."
Leach said some fans might be going to the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic that features Toronto FC. If folks here and at MLS can grab fans' attention, they might end up going to both IMG and Disney World for soccer.
"If this is a continuous thing, then yeah, you might get some people taking a couple weeks off, vacationing here first then going up to Orlando and taking both tournaments in the same trip," Leach predicted.
Nick Gigliotti has been a soccer fan since he was a kid in Italy. He's lived in Bradenton since 1958. He's been refereeing for area leagues and teams and is a Tampa Bay Rowdies season ticket holder. Yet, even though MLS teams have had preseason matches at both IMG Academy and Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, this is his first year watching MLS in Manatee County.
"They were hustling -- that's the name of soccer," Gigliotti said, enjoying the bargain $3 Budweiser with his hamburger.
Joe Wells of Wesley Chapel attended his first MLS game Thursday afternoon seeing the Columbus Crew and Swedish club Malmo FF. When the match picked up speed, it started to hold his attention more than baseball.
He is open to returning and thinks it could expose more kids to the sport and get them to stick with it and be fans.
"It's almost like you've got nothing to lose because soccer has grown leaps and bounds in the United States, but there still is opportunity," said Wells, who describes himself as an all-around sports fan.
Wells bought the tickets so he and his friend former University of South Florida soccer player Noelle Pineiro could see the game since some of her USF buddies are now players on the Columbus Crew.
Future fan fun
Dymphna Browne has traveled to Bradenton from Ontario for 21 years. She's a self-described soccer mom who raised two goalies who both went on to Queens University. Browne's son Brendan, a Toronto season ticket holder, was ecstatic she was able to see their favorite team play where she spends her winters.
Browne regularly attends IMG tennis tournaments, but she didn't realize how expansive IMG's campus is with their other sports. As a soccer mom, she recognized what preseason soccer can do for a kid. Her sons got into the sport because their youth team was invited to play on Toronto FC's field before the game and got to meet the players.
"How do you love something until you know it? You have to get to know it," Browne said with a hint of her Irish heritage in her voice. "Getting them to be involved and shake hands with the players -- that makes you feel pretty important, doesn't it, when you're a little guy?"
Fans still want to have that big league gameday experience. Interactive activities before the game has been a common request from families. Jen Rogers said it would be great to have someplace where the kids could kick a ball into a goal, for instance. Browne said kids meeting their heroes on team does wonders.
"Just think of all the children here who play soccer and then could come and see this. Talk about a motivator? Wow," Browne said.
"To see world-class players play here, and they do play differently. It shows them what it really could be like. When little kids are playing, everyone's following the ball. Here, they get to see people doing what they should be doing on the field."
The league and IMG is looking to bring fan events to future preseason events in Bradenton, like a fan fest or the SuperDraft -- all ways to allow the community to interact with players and appreciate the sport. This year they offered mini-camps to train with a MLS pro.
Dedicated soccer fans and kids from Canada and Europe probably wouldn't think twice about taking their kid out of school for a week for the pro experience, Leach said.
"Toronto is a very European city, so they're die-hard soccer fans and so are their kids," Leach said. "Most of their kids are in a program like a local team or academy. If that were something that were available here as well to train with the academy team here or a camp here, and these players were here for a day or something -- you'd get people signing up for sure."
Soccer -- or futbol as the rest of the world calls it -- is arguably the most popular sport in the world. But the fandom in the United States doesn't have the same fervor as Europe, even though more than 3 million youth soccer players are registered in the country.
Florida has one of the highest youth soccer registrations in the U.S. with 108,057 players.
Wells acknowledged there is peer pressure to select a sport by high school and to play a sport everyone is playing, offering one reason more youth soccer players don't continue following the sport through adulthood.
"As an inner city kid, I know if I was playing one of the non-major four sports and you play a couple of them, you pretty much have to make that decision by the time you get to high school," he said.
Improvements to be made
The agreement for the expanded preseason came a little too late for some fan-friendly features to be completed. Fans were out of luck if they wanted to buy a jersey of a favorite team or a scarf with the Bradenton preseason logo. The merchandise shop was closed.
"We want to mirror an MLS game experience," Dean said. "A lot of that we had to come out of the gate running, and we're learning as we're going. I think it's a two-way street. They're learning what they're capable of, and we're learning of some of their other needs we didn't experience in years past, and that's going to make the relationship that much stronger.
"We're hoping going forward from here now that we know what everyone needs, we'll be far ahead of the game the next go-around," Dean added. "We'll have hopefully eight months to a year to really support the games."
Games were still being scheduled late in the week with some added at the last minute. A game last Thursday afternoon between New England Revolution and the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League was announced the day before.
Plus, the games were not posted in places fans expected. In Leach's case he said he found that the Bradenton games for his club were posted on the league's site at MLS.com and not Toronto FC's website.
Two games are scheduled for this week: Chicago vs. Orlando at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Chicago vs. D.C. at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
There is always room for improvement, Dean said.
"Our team has worked extremely hard, and MLS has worked really hard to get it all done," Dean said.
"It's finally moving and it's going, and we're extremely pleased with our relationship with MLS.
"I think we've done an admirable job to put on a world-class event in the soccer spectrum."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.