In a state known for its entertaining sports, attractions, and culture, the Sunshine Conference keeps that Florida reputation with its teams. Filled with former professional players from all over the world, it’s no surprise that the Sunshine state hosts some of the most entertaining soccer in NPSL, with the top three teams making it the most competitive conference in the league. However, with a Miami team winning the conference for the past five years, including Miami FC 2- which also lifted the NPSL National Championship trophy in 2018 -some have pointed out an unfairness of the well-funded teams against the smaller or newer clubs. Will Miami teams continue their dominance in 2019 or will the trophy finally move out of South Beach? To decide that, let’s look at the teams.
Miami FC 2
Miami FC came into 2018 already having a historically successful 2017 season in the NASL. Winning both the spring and fall season championships in 2017 and setting league records while doing it, Miami FC 2 continued its success in the NPSL, only allowing five goals in a twelve game season. The eventual 2018 NPSL national champion was not only the hardest team to score against, it was also the hardest team to stop. With a roster full of diverse players like former MLS player Johnny Steele in the midfield, Jamie Sanchez- the striker with fifteen goals and eleven assists in two seasons, and former USL player Shawn Chin leading the backline, it’s hard to find a weak spot in this team. Owned by Ricardo Silva, the team played in a 20,000-seat stadium named after the owner himself. Miami has the resources to dominate its division.
While exciting to watch, there was some criticism with the team. With the collapse of the NASL, Miami FC 2 found itself in a situation of having many first team players needing to play but not having a league to play in. This is what some have called the unfair advantage Miami FC 2 has had, stating most of the players were professional players who would have not been playing NPSL if Miami FC 2 had a league to play in that year. However, with the new NPSL Founder’s Cup, Hank Steinbrecher Cup, and the departures of important players like Jeff Michaud, Sean McFarlane, and Kris Tyrpak to other leagues, will the heavy workload be a challenge Miami to keep up its dominant plus 25 goal differential form? Watch for Cuban midfielder, Darío Suárez, who had 10 goals on 39 shots last season, showing he’s a threat down the wing and cutting inside with one of the best goals to shots ratios in the league.
Jacksonville Armada FC
If there’s one team picked to give Miami FC 2 a run for its money, it’s the 2018 Sunshine Conference second place finishers Jacksonville Armada. Started in May of 2013, the Sunshine Soccer Group was formed to bring soccer to Jacksonville. Later that year, the NASL awarded Jacksonville the rights to expand and add the league’s thirteenth team. After a couple of years in the league, the NASL bought the Jacksonville Armada FC franchise and took ownership and operation of the team while looking for a new owner. It was then that local businessman Robert Palmer purchased the Armada and changed its structure on and off the field. With seven and eight goals from Ciarán Kilduff and J.C. Banks respectively, it was the only team to beat the national champions in the regular season and brought Jacksonville its first soccer playoff in almost three decades. While it had its best record in franchise history, it was playing in its home of Hodges Stadium where it was an unstoppable force.
Remaining undefeated at the 12,000 seat natural grass stadium at North Florida University, Jacksonville was successful in all parts of its attack (especially on the counter) and led by team MVP Yuma. Cheered on by its supporters group, Section 904, Jacksonville showed how passionate it is about its team with impressive home and away support. However, coming up on its fifth year anniversary, Jacksonville has many holes to fill, as Banks, Kilduff, and Yuma have all departed for different leagues. It has also announced it will be fielding a U-23 team with former captain Aaron Pitchkolan as the head coach. Defense will be a spot to focus on with the team as Haitian international Mechack Jérôme tries to lead the back line that only allowed three goals at home in all of 2018. It may need the help of its forty foot Octopus friend, Squid Vicious, to keep its third-best conference defense. Outside of its match with Miami FC 2, its close matches with Palm Beach United (3-2 win at home and 4-2 loss away) could be the deciding factor on Jacksonville having a shot for first place and its first conference title.
Naples United FC
The 2017 expansion team saw considerable improvement in 2018, going from last place to fifth on the Sunshine Conference table. From one win in its first season to five last year and led by head coach Vicente Sandoval, Naples improved on its chemistry this year with exciting build up play through the midfield. Players like Kevin Guillen brought a spark to the Naples offense with quick passes through the middle leading to beautiful goals. Another midfielder who was there to create the goals and even finish them was Danny Tenorio, who had multiple two goal games and finished tied with the most goals on the team. Right there with him was forward Jonathan Moyano, who consistently scored in games, accounting for 33% of the team’s goal. However, while the goals may be plentiful, it was the defense that would negate the offensive hard work. Matching its middle of the table points, the goal differential was plus one in 2018 and will most likely be the main part of its game it is looking to fix in 2019. Especially with playmaker and scorer, Danny Tenorio off to join USL League One. From its preseason workout on the beach, to gameday at Palmetto Ridge High School, it’ll be exciting to see if Naples can continue its growth coming into year three.
Central Florida Panthers SC
The newest team to the conference, Central Florida could be the team in the conference to disrupt the Miami dominance, led by an Executive Board of Directors that includes President Eddie Loyola, Vice President Giovanni Taliaferro, and Treasurer Alphonse Amato. Loyola serves as Vice President for the Florida State Soccer Association (FSSA), which serves as a huge advantage for a first-year team. As part of the Central Florida Soccer League- a 501c4 not for profit USASA sanctioned adult amateur league located in the greater Orlando area -another advantage the Panthers have is a youth system and the development of players in their area. Speaking with VP Giovanni Taliaferro, Giovanni spoke on what their front office looks forward to the most in its debut season.
“We are focused on the local player and coach along with helping build our community through soccer. With all of the talent in the Central Florida Soccer League, we are confident that they, along with some local collegiate and youth players will provide a unique core of players for our first season.”
The CFSL was founded in 1964 and is the oldest and largest adult amateur league in Florida. The league boasts more than 2,700 registered players with more than 70 teams playing in 12 divisions. Playing their home games at Winter Park High School, the Panthers should have a sense of home field advantage with their history of playing the CFSL championships at the same location. While the team has yet to announce any new signings, it has announced open tryouts will be in the month of February. You can also expect the team to bring in some of its youth players that it feels are ready to take the next step into the professional level.
While Naples United has been improving since its inaugural season, the opposite could be said for 2018’s Sunshine Conference last place team, Strom FC. Founded in 2013, the Storm came into NPSL with a bang, placing third in the conference in its first year and making it all the way to the conference semifinal. However, it has not been able to make it over the fifth place mark since, and had its worst season ever in 2018, scoring only one goal. Playing its home games at Central Broward Regional Park- the park that the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers once called home -the 20,000-seat capacity stadium is definitely one of the most exciting venues not just in the Sunshine Conference but all of the NPSL. Led by Spanish coach Enrique Guijarro, Storm FC is hoping to revamp its team on both sides of the ball. After allowing a conference-high 41 goals, Enrique will focus on finding a defensive core and a midfield that holds the ball to allow more of a buildup and offensive chances.
Miami United FC
While Miami FC 2 may have dominated both the Sunshine Conference and UPSL in 2018, another Miami team is used to finishing on top. The 2014 and 2016 Sunshine Conference champs, Miami United FC is the oldest team in the group and the only NPSL club to make the fourth round in the U.S. Open Cup. Founded in 2012, the team plays in the 5,000 seat Ted Hendricks Stadium at Milander Park. Founder & CEO Roberto Sacca set forth on his vision of the team after the fall of Miami FC (USL) and Miami Fusion (MLS). Wanting to embrace the community of Miami, the team is made up of thirteen different nationalities and uses the motto "Bringing the community together for the LOVE of the game," to bring together the many different players, supporters, and people of Miami. Recently, Miami United showed just how diverse its population was, hosting a friendly against the defending Uruguayan champions Peñarol. The 2-2 draw was hosted in front of over 11,000 fans.
Miami’s high-powered offense scored the second most goals in the conference in 2018, including a 9-0 win. With Victor Pelae Cardoso and Sebastian Exequiel Obregon both scoring hat tricks in the 2018 season, Miami found a lot of success with speedy play on the wings thanks to Venezuelan midfielder Gabriel Privitera. Head coach Gerardo Reinoso brings one of the most impressive portfolios to the NPSL, playing for Independiente, River Plate, Boca Juniors, Club Leon, and appearances for over ten other teams. While its offensive wing play is fun to watch, Miami United is impressive on the other side of the ball as well. United only allowed seven goals in 2018, good for second best in the conference. However, something to look for in 2019 is consistency, as its only loss last year came at home to the fourth place team Palm Beach United. It then went on to the conference playoffs as the third place team, forcing it to play a Jacksonville Armada team in Jacksonville, where the Armada only allowed three goals all season. The teams were separated by one point and would have played in Miami had it not lost its game against Palm Beach United. This consistency could be the key for Miami to make a deep playoff run or another first round exit.
Photos courtesy of club social media and Protagonist Soccer, unless otherwise mentioned. Custom art designed by Laura Mills. Previews written by Jason Weintraub with input from David Baker, Joshua Duder, and Dan Vaughn.