MANATEE -- Professional soccer is returning to Bradenton, but there's a twist to this year's event at IMG Academy.
Last year, Major League Soccer clubs arrived for training and to conduct some preseason friendlies before their seasons started.
This year will feature the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic tournament, which will have two four-team brackets playing a round-robin style that culminates with a championship game in February.
The tournament is held Feb. 18-28 and teams such as Toronto F.C., New York Red Bulls, the Philadelphia Union and the Columbus Crew are representing MLS.
Other squads include HB Kove (Denmark first division club), Oklahoma City Energy F.C. (United Soccer League Pro), T.P. Mazembe (Congo, Linafoot League) and the Costa Rican U-23 Men's National Team.
"Part of (MLS clubs) wish list is, 'Yeah, we kind of like playing international competition,'" IMG Academy associate director of athletics Scott Dean said. "Different styles, just a different look and I think it will expose some players on both ends. Maybe some guys that don't make the final cut from an MLS standpoint, maybe Kove from Denmark may be interested in. Maybe a Costa Rican Under-23, that's a young up-and-comer, may catch the eye of some of the MLS talent. I'm hoping part of the byproduct is that they end up seeing this not just as an opportunity to get better, to play and prepare for the season, but also an opportunity to see different players that they may be able to track during the course of the upcoming year."
In addition to those clubs, there are other professional teams that are coming to IMG on a rolling basis beginning this Saturday. Dean said some training sessions might be open to the public, but those details are not known yet. Also, a slew of pre-tournament friendlies are scheduled.
Malmo F.F., who recently participated in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, is scheduled for two friendly matches in early February and has trained at IMG the past few years.
"The Malmo experiences here have helped open the doors for these other pro organizations outside the country," Dean said.
The first of the pre-tournament friendly slate will feature two MLS sides: D.C. United and Orlando City on Friday, Jan. 30.
Orlando City is making its debut season in MLS this year after playing in the USL Pro Division, and has already made waves with the signing of former AC Milan and Brazilian National Team star Kaka as well as selling 10,000 season tickets for 2015, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
"It will really be the first game and the first venue that (Kaka) will play in, outside of what they are doing locally there," Dean said. "And those fans will travel."
Dean said ticketing will be in place for the D.C. United-Orlando City match as well as possibly one other one in the pre-tournament schedule.
Tickets for the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic can be purchased at Walgreens locations in Bradenton and Sarasota or online at imgsuncoastproclassic.com. The prices are either $17 (adult general admission), $23 (club seating) or $27 (club seating and pro classic scarf combo). Parking is around the stadium at a $5 charge. Children ages 3-and-younger are admitted in for free.
For more information, contact the box office at 1-888-345-5742.
The group stage matches are Wednesday, Feb. 18; Saturday, Feb. 21 and Wednesday, Feb. 25. The championship is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m.
A kickoff event is also scheduled for the tournament. The date is Monday, Feb. 16 in downtown Lakewood Ranch, and gives a chance for fans to meet players from the participating teams. Details for the event are still being ironed out.