Major League Soccer clubs the Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact played a preseason game at the Joe DiMaggio complex in Clearwater Feb. 22 as part of the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational Tournament.
CLEARWATER – Just a strong corner kick away from the Philadelphia Phillies spring training home, Spectrum Field, another professional team from the City of Brotherly Love is making Clearwater its home base for preseason practice and games.
For the past three seasons, Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union has been training at the refurbished Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex, located at the northwest corner of Drew Street and Old Coachman Road, and the club just finished participating in the Rowdies Suncoast Invitational Tournament in advance of the start of the MLS regular season on March 1.
During the middle contest of the three-game tourney, which was held at Art Capogna Field and at Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete, Clearwater recreation superintendent Mike Lockwood said the plan is to have two pro teams from Philly hold spring training here in the city every year.
“Our goal is to have spring training for MLS here in Clearwater and create a relationship like the Phillies have enjoyed here for more than 70 years,” Lockwood said prior to the Union’s preseason match versus the Montreal Impact on Wednesday, Feb. 22. “These games, plus the practices held here earlier this month, give us momentum toward reaching that goal.”
Lockwood went on to say the city’s partnership with the Union has come a long way in three years, from hosting a few preseason practices to the team using the field, which underwent a $400,000 renovation in 2015, as a springboard for its preparation for the regular season.
“The team came down to start training at the end of January and stayed until February 10 before taking a short break,” Lockwood explained. “They returned to Clearwater on Dec. 14 and participated in the Rowdies tournament while primarily training here at the Joe DiMaggio complex.” He said the strong relationship between Clearwater and the Phillies, as well as a unique one between two MLS squads, has helped strengthen the bond between the city and the world’s most popular sport. “The Phillies have been a big help, thanks to their 70-year relationship with the city, and D.C. United also has a close relationship with the Union, which makes organizing games and practices much easier.”
The working relationships are paying dividends, as three teams are currently basing their spring training operations in Pinellas County, with the hope that more will follow.
“Right now, D.C. United is at Countryside, Philadelphia is here, and Montreal is in St. Pete, and our goal is to get a fourth MLS team and partner with Orlando (City) down the road and create a Pinellas County/Orlando rivalry,” Lockwood said.
Future plans aside, local soccer fans were thrilled at being able to watch world-class athletes running up and down the pitch right in their own backyards; members of the Clearwater Chargers U-11 club marched onto the field with the players prior to the start of the match, while men, women and children of all ages cheered for Philly and Montreal from warm metal benches.
“I think it’s awesome,” longtime soccer fan Kevin Connelly of Oldsmar said as he took in the action with his wife, Donna, and friends the Wilbur family from Dunedin. “This is a beautiful facility, and we don’t have to drive to Orlando to watch MLS. It’s great.”
“I think it’s impressive,” Kristie Wilbur, whose 10-year-old son, Nicholas, plays youth soccer, said. “The kids are getting exposed to soccer at another level, and my husband is a huge fan as well, so they are both really enjoying this.”
When asked how he felt about being able to watch the pros play near his hometown, Nicholas had a typical 10-year-old-kid response. “I think it’s cool!” he said.