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Andrew Helm

Andrew Helm dribbles down field with Villages SC players in pursuit. The Surf won their franchise home opener
1-0. GREG GARDNER PHOTO

Semi-pro soccer arrives in Port St. Lucie

BY GREG GARDNER

Semiprofessional soccer is riding the wave to the Treasure Coast as Port St. Lucie is home to South Florida Surf, the Professional Development League’s newest Florida team.


With just 36 hours of practice, the team won its first exhibition game April 23, beating Miami United 2-0 at the South County Regional Sports Complex across from Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie.


“It was phenomenal and I was so pleased to win our first game in front of 1,800 people,” head coach Peter Fuller says. “I’m so happy for the players. They put their hearts and souls into it and performed very well together. I was pleased on so many different levels. They played as a solid 11-man unit with only a day and a half to practice together.”


Fuller brings 32 years coaching experience and says he is here to stay until the team’s owners say otherwise. He has been named National Coach of the Year three times by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, Conference Coach of the Year 10 times and Regional Coach of the Year five times. A member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, Fuller is the only man in league history to coach two college teams to national championships, Belhaven University and the University of Mobile. He also served as head coach for the Major League Soccer team New England Revolution.


With 65 teams nationwide, the PDL is considered the largest pathway to pro soccer in North America, the soccer equivalent of baseball’s AA development league with players hoping to move up to the big leagues. Fuller says 90 percent of his players are ages 19 to 23 with most of them off from college for the summer. “We are a hodgepodge, a melting pot in terms of cultures and playing styles,” he says. “We have kids from NCAA Division I and II teams, colleges from the Midwest and Northeast, Europe and South America.”


With 15 years’ experience at various positions in organized soccer, general manager Eric Arbuzow left an assistant coaching position with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League to help form the Surf. Previously, he was director of coaching at a youth club in Palm Beach Gardens, where he expanded programs from three to 30 teams. Arbuzow is excited about growing the Surf organization for the long haul and he knows the kids are the key.
The players are all required to participate in youth soccer clinics. Arbuzow is counting on the kids bringing their parents to raise awareness of the sport and South Florida Surf in particular.


After its first game, goalie and team captain Andres Ruiz pulled the team into a huddle for rousing congratulations. Players then fanned out to take photos with fans and signed autographs until there were no more requests.


“We try to give as much back as possible with free clinics and paid camps,” Arbuzow says. “There are 10,000 kids who play soccer on the Treasure Coast. If we don’t invest in the community, how can we expect them to invest in us?

Soccer is a world game and it discriminates against no one. We want to have a footprint in this community.” The Surf has reached out to the local soccer leagues, offering to set up clinics. A season ticket for all seven home games at South County is $20, with individual game tickets $5.


Team owner Global Sports Network and generous sponsors will cover the estimated $300,000 for the first 14-game season. The players live together at an apartment complex in Palm Beach Gardens, an arrangement common in the PDL. “It is a great environment and they have to learn how to live by themselves, budget their meal money and cook for themselves,” Fuller says. “Some know each other as opponents and now they know each other as teammates. We have 10 to 12 future pros on our team.”


Players have three different options to give back for the team, Fuller says. They can work in the owner’s office, help market the team in the community or work at clinics and camps. Management ensures the team complies with all NCAA regulations.


Fuller, Arbuzow and assistant coach Trevor Adair are responsible for the final makeup of the 30-man roster. Having 31 years’ experience coaching NCAA Division I teams, Adair was named Coach of the Year twice. With a keen eye for talent, he has coached 57 players who have signed professional contracts.


“We find college players from Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, California,” Adair says.

“They (colleges) know we understand how much they will play. There is a trust between us. The players won’t be coming home burned out. We will take care of them and make them better players.” Collegiate All-Americans make up a quarter of the team roster.


Surf management is hoping the team will perform well enough to compete in the USL Pro League by the 2019 season and continue to develop players for major league soccer.


The Surf’s first exhibition game with Miami United, which it won 2-0, was rough with frequent collisions as players battled for the ball, which was controlled most of the night by the Surf. After it was over, the grass looked more pockmarked than a polo field after a match. “It was carnage,” Arbuzow says of the scene in the locker room at halftime.


During the game, Fuller never took his eye off the ball, his distinctive voice leading the team with orders and encouragement in equal measure. “On your horse. Join in. Organize. Keep him back. Good boy. Outstanding. Great job.”
Fuller believes the team’s brand of soccer will be both successful and entertaining.


“You can expect a team that will compete every night with work ethic for 90 minutes,” he says. “We will mold this team into our own South Florida Surf style that people will enjoy and embrace.”


Surf Schedule

May 7 - Surf 1, The Villages SC 0
May 15 - at Floridians FC, 4 p.m.
May 18 - at FC Miami City, 6 p.m.
May 28 - at Palm Beach Suns FC, 7 p.m.
June 4 - at FC Miami City, 6 p.m.
June 8 - at The Villages SC, 5 p.m.
June 11 - IMG Academy Bradenton
June 18 - SW Florida Adrenaline, 4 p.m.
June 22 - Palm Beach Suns FC
June 25 - Floridians FC
June 29 - FC Miami City
July 5 - at IMG Academy Bradenton, 6 p.m.
July 9 - SW Florida Adrenaline
July 16 - Palm Beach Suns

Home games are played at South County Regional Sports Complex, 560 NW University Blvd., Port St Lucie at 7 p.m.

Daily practices are open to the public at the Keiser College campus in Palm Beach Gardens.

For more information visit: www.southfloridasurfsc.com