As David Beckham and company prepare to bring MLS 2.0 to Miami, we take a look back at the surprisingly long history of the beautiful game in South Florida.
Professional soccer in South Florida began in the early 1970s when a transplanted team arrived in Miami from the nation’s capital. The Washington Darts, renamed the Miami Gatos, played their first season in 1973 before being renamed the Miami Toros.
The Toros, and later the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, shared their parentage with the Miami Dolphins. Elizabeth Robbie, wife of Dolphins boss Joe Robbie, became the first woman to own a professional sports franchise in the United States with her purchase of the Miami Toros – a consequence of an NFL rule that prevented her husband from owning two professional sports teams. They would share the Orange Bowl with the Miami Hurricanes for three years before playing at Tamiami Park.
Stadium attendance was sparse despite the Toros making it to the 1974 championship against the Los Angeles Aztecs in only their third year. Two Toros players were named league MVPs in 1973 and 1975 – Trinidadians Warren Archibald and Steve David, who both hailed from the same tiny island town of Port Fortin.
Following the 1976 season, and declining support in Miami, the Toros moved to Fort Lauderdale and became the first incarnation of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
The Golden Years
The Strikers would kick off what would be the glory days for professional soccer in South Florida. Where they had struggled in Miami, they excelled in Fort Lauderdale, packing the stands at Lockhart Stadium and forcing it to expand from 8,000 to 11,000 seats, and then again to 15,000 seats.
One historic game between the Strikers and the legendary New York Cosmos drew nearly 78,000 fans.
This Strikers team is notable for fielding some of the best players to ever play the game. Notables included Gerd Müller, who previously had scored nearly 400 goals for German giant Bayern Munich, and is still today one of the top goalscorers in soccer history. George Best, regarded as the “greatest player to ever pull on the green shirt of Northern Ireland” by his home country and a Manchester United legend, debuted for the Strikers during the golden age as well.
Between 1977 and 1983, the Strikers made it to every playoff in their league.
But the dream would soon end (temporarily) as the Strikers were relocated to Minnesota and replaced by the Fort Lauderdale Sun. Despite winning the league championship in their inaugural year, the Sun couldn’t hold on to the same support, and the league they played in folded shortly after the start of the next season.
1988 saw the rebirth of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, with many of the original players returning to the team. One of the returning players, and a man who South Florida would later become well acquainted with, was Ray Hudson – today a well-known voice to any American fan of the Spanish Liga and viewers of beIN Sports.
The new Strikers found success, finishing first in their league division for four consecutive years and winning the national championship in 1989.
The return of the Strikers saw support for soccer swell in the community, with several other clubs popping up, including the Miami Freedom, the Miami Sharks, and teams from Coral Springs and Boca Raton.
Major League Soccer Comes (And Goes)
In 1998, a young Major League Soccer awarded Miami its own soccer franchise, and gave birth to the Miami Fusion. During their short four seasons of existence, the Fusion found success, making the playoffs three times. While their first three seasons ended in disappointment, the Fusion had their greatest run after appointing aforementioned Strikers star Ray Hudson as their head coach.
Hudson would put together arguably the best team in MLS at the time, leading Miami to the top of the league and earning them the Supporters’ Shield in 2001, awarded to the club with the best season record. Fickle fans, who had declined to support an inconsistent and often disappointing Fusion, were starting to come back. But just as the club was riding on high after winning the league, MLS contracted, folding the Miami Fusion out of existence at the peak of their success and popularity.
A New Era
Professional soccer would not live again in South Florida until 2006, which saw the creation of Miami FC. Miami signed Brazilian World Cup winners Romario and Zinho, who would lead them to the playoffs in their first year.
In 2010, Miami FC rebranded to become the third and latest incarnation of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The thrice-reborn Strikers, like its predecessors, saw swells in attendance and community support. 2011 saw the Strikers reach the league championship, where they were defeated by NSC Minnesota, who later became Minnesota United and were recently chosen for promotion from the second tier of U.S. soccer to MLS.
Last year, after another impressive run into the championship series, the Strikers’ ownership brought Brazilian legend Ronaldo into the fold, who promised to be intimately involved with the operations of the club, and teased a possible return to the pitch wearing the Strikers’ red and gold colors.
The next few years promise to bring big things for soccer fans in South Florida.
Although Beckham’s club has struggled to get off the ground amid delays finding a stadium site, all indications from MLS leadership and Miami Beckham United, Beckham’s ownership group, are that MLS is dedicated to creating a club in Miami.
Recent years have seen the creation of lower-tier sides with strong financial backing and increasing community support. Miami United FC were formed in 2012 to play in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), and defeated local teams Storm FC and Tampa Marauders to win the 2014 Sunshine Conference title.
The Miami Fusion were resurrected in the form of another fourth-tier side also playing in the NPSL – this time owned by wealthy local businessman Venanzio Cipollitti, CEO of Inteligensa, a company that produces a third of all bank cards provided in Latin America.
Miami has well established its hunger for more fútbol – it sits as one of the biggest markets in the country for English Premier League viewership, Spanish Liga viewership, Champions League viewership, and visiting teams playing at Sun Life Stadium have continually broken attendance records at the grounds. The International Champions Cup, a summer competition between the top clubs in the world from Mexico, MLS, and including giants like Barcelona and Manchester United, chose Miami as the home for its annual final.
Earlier this month, The Guardian published a piece lauding increases in attendance and attention across the state, and pondering whether Florida could soon become the soccer capital of the country. As we look forward to a new club with a new identity for Miami, it looks like the future of footy is very bright in South Florida.
5/20 UPDATE: The day after this story was published, the North American Soccer League (the second division of U.S. soccer) announced the creation of Miami FC, beating Beckham to the re-introduction of professional soccer in the Magic City.
Miami FC will be the 12th team to play in the NASL and will be headed by sports media entrepreneurs Riccardo Silva and Antonio Barreto, as well as Paolo Maldini, a former defender for AC Milan with a track record of five European championships and representing Italy at three FIFA World Cups during his 25-year career.
The team announced community partnerships with the Miami Foundation and Play for Change as well.
Miami United FC play at Flamingo Park in Miami Beach.
Miami Fusion FC play at Milander Park in Hialeah.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers play at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.
All teams are currently playing in their regular season. Miami United and the Strikers are also participating in the U.S. Open Cup. Individual tickets start at $10.
Abel Iraola is a communications professional with a passion for food, politics, the arts, and everything Miami. Follow him on Twitter, @abeliraola.