Boca Raton FC’s (right) opening game of the 2017 NPSL season was against Miami United, their First Round US Open Cup opponent. Photo: Boca Raton FC
Boca Raton FC don’t have to look too far for a reminder of the magic of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. In fact, they don’t even need to leave South Florida.
The defining underdog story of last year’s Open Cup came thirty minutes down I-95 from Boca Raton, with the quarterfinal run of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League.
In truth, however, any comparisons between the Strikers and Boca Raton FC stop at geography.
For the Strikers, last year’s run was one about a headstrong group of players that managed to ignore the dark clouds of mismanagement and specter of financial doom off the field to deliver a lifetime of memorable magic to a small but fiercely loyal, and soon to be heartbroken, set of fans. It was a last hurrah for what had been one of American soccer’s brightest brands. The Strikers run was about defiance and bittersweet endings.
Boca Raton FC, on the other hand, is a club with a story that’s very much just beginning. Founded in 2015, Boca Raton has cultivated a unique, community-first structure from inception, and seen success in the process. Winners of four consecutive American Premier Soccer League (APSL) titles, this summer will see Boca Raton FC make the jump up to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) for the first time. The club will open its NPSL home schedule May 12, just two days after they play Miami United in the US Open Cup.
Boca has not been shied away from big ambitions as they announced the club’s intention to make a long-term push to bring MLS to Boca Raton. The club launched the website, mls2bocaraton.com to help facilitate and promote the club’s long-term ambition.
Moving to NPSL is part of that process, club chairman Douglas Heizer said last week.
“We’re excited to play in NPSL,” Heizer said. “We built a team to play in NPSL two years ago. It gives the team more exposure for sure and we think we have a very good team, but it’s a new experience and we’re more interested in the club-building process than focusing on the move to NPSL.”
Boca Raton FC poses for a team photo before a NPSL game against Miami United. Photo: Boca Raton FC
But according to Heizer, the NPSL and seeking glory in America’s oldest soccer competition are just part of the process of club-building.
“Our main goal is to build a team that the fans and community can be proud of,” Heizer said. “That’s the number one goal. Second is to go wherever the fans bring us. We don’t care about the letters of the league. We care about the fans and the letters on the crest.”
Heizer said the club doesn’t have to reach MLS to accomplish that end.
“Chattanooga FC and Detroit City FC are perfect examples [of not needing MLS]” Heizer said. “They are NPSL teams and they have more people in the stadium than many of the second division sides.”
“Fans look for good soccer. They look for a club they can be proud of. I want to go where the fans are proud and where they want us to go,” said Heizer.
Helping deliver on Heizer’s vow to give Boca Raton FC fans good soccer is the club’s academy structure, a complete pyramid effect that starts children at the age of seven and offers different club levels until they are ready to become professionals. Boca has a partnership with Barcelona Elite that facilitates the last step, along with the NPSL club.
Heizer said rooting his club in community helps the club grow in a way that gives the team a skilled foundation but also expands the fan base and with it, the community’s investment in the club’s success long-term.
“I’m from Rio de Janeiro,” Heizer said. “Soccer there is a path to make a living. Clubs partner with academies and in the end, kids know where they will be going. But the important thing- the idea behind the system, is that clubs begin to care about players when they are kids, on and off the field. And then the kids grow up caring about the big club, as something that inspires them.”
It’s part of the reason Heizer has brought in coaches like Athirson, who emerged from that system in Brazil, playing with Flamengo early in his career before moving to Juventus, where he played, among other stops, until returning to Flamengo in 2004.
Athirson, who earned five caps for Brazil as well, will coach the NPSL side. He’ll be joined in the coaching pyramid by Juninho, who will run the club’s South American scouting operation, and Pedro Yunes, who will run the academy. All are familiar with the pyramid, community-based club structure.
“I wanted coaches who could share with young players the story of how you start at a club as early as 12 years old and experience results, later in life, with the top team.” Heizer explained. “That is what inspires the kids. The idea they can play for the top team, get college paid for, play professionally, learn quality skills but also build life experiences.”
Signing players on the field like Edmar, a former Ukrainian national teamer and Metalist Kharkiv regular who nearly led Ukraine to a stunning upset of France in the 2014 World Cup qualifying playoffs, signed with Boca Raton FC this February.
Edmar gives the club a level of proven class not often seen at this level, but the team is hardly a one-man band. Fullback Justin Wilbanks is very capable technically, and dangerous from distance. He has three goals on the APSL season to date. And Bruno Militz, a fast winger, is dangerous on the ball or cutting in on his left foot, a player not unlike Diego Serena was in his heyday with another old south Florida club, the Miami Fusion.
All in all, it’s enough talent to give Miami United all they can handle in the Open Cup Wednesday night.
Eventually, Heizer thinks the academies will do the dirty work.
“My short-term goal is to build with a foundation from the academies,” Heizer said. “I don’t know how long it will take but I think we can do it as early as five years into the system.”
For now, he just wants the community in south Florida to know that unlike last year’s Open Cup darling, the Strikers, whose fans received little recognition from a cold, detached front office, Boca Raton FC is a club that embraces the community. And he’s anxious to keep getting the word out.
As for the Open Cup matchup with Miami United, Heizer thinks it is just the beginning.
“You always play to win, and we will play to win. But whatever happens, we’re proud to be Boca Raton’s team.”
NOTE: Boca Raton FC is offering a free ticket to the US Open Cup game against Miami United on May 10. Fans just need to use the promo code “PREZ”.