Florida Tropics - Built to win

It might sound bit outlandish and even somewhat oxymoronic to say that a team that finished 8-16 in the Major Arena Soccer League last year just might have a target on its back this season. But let's consider the case of the Florida Tropics, who have pulled off a remarkable makeover.

They have bulked up for the 2019-20 season and on both ends of the field.

The Tropics have added 12 -- count 'em, 12 -- top-line players to their roster, including 11 free agents, and they aren't chopped liver. Many, if not all, are among the best league can offer and some have arena championship experience as well.

The newcomers include the likes of lethal forwards in Gordy Gurson, Ricardo Carvalho and Joey Tavernese and defender Drew Ruggles, among others. The 12th new player? That's reigning rookie of the year Zack Reget, who was obtained in a trade with the St. Louis Ambush.

"Everyone knows who we have," head coach Clay Roberts said. "We have a team full of all-league players. Then of course they're going to have a target on their back. You've got countless goals that we've signed in the offseason. You've got countless leaders that we've signed. We're not just a team just of select players. They're been hand-picked, selected to serve a role, a capacity. That's what we're hoping for. No doubt there's a target."

For three seasons the Tropics have enjoyed good support from its Lakeland, Fla. area fans, but hadn't rewarded their supporters with a winning side. During the offseason, Tropics CEO and majority owner Dr. Panagiotis Iakovidis, COO and co-owner Chris Economides and head coach Clay Roberts did made some momentous decisions. The Tropics' outdoor team won a UPSL outdoor national championship and they wanted to duplicate that success in arena soccer.

"We were certainly not the '27 Yankees," Economides said. "Doc and I sat down after last season and said, 'This is not working. From a front office perspective in a market like Lakeland, we've come a long, long way, continuing to make remarkable progress.' So, we wanted to have the team sort of be on the same level on what we're doing from an organizational standpoint. So, we said, 'We're going to be the New York Yankees with the free agents and signings.'

"Once we signed Gordy Gurson that sort of let players around the league know that, 'Hey, these guys are for real.' That opened the flood gates of other guys coming here."

A quick look at the newcomers:

  • The signing of Gordy Gurson, who finished fourth among the MASL points leaders (34 goals, 24 assists for 58 points) with the Orlando Seawolves, told the rest of the league that the Tropics were serious in overhauling their roster. Besides, Florida got a big thorn out of its side since Gurson tallied 13 goals in six games against the team.
  •  Forward Ricardo Carvalho recorded 30 goals for the Harrisburg Heat, good for ninth in the league.
  • Forward Joey Tavernese, who found the net 20 times goals for Utica City FC last season, has enjoyed a consistent career with 126 goals in 123 appearances.
  • Defender Drew Ruggles was a major reason the Milwaukee Wave captured the 2018-19 MASL championship.
  • Drew Ruggles' former Wave teammate, midfielder Ricardinho, also was added, giving the team strength on both sides of the ball.
  • Zach Reget, acquired in a deal with St. Louis for forward Andre Braithwaite, tallied 22 goals and 10 assists last season.
  • Former Ambush defender Robert Acosta, who was the 2017-18 MASL defender of the year.
  • Victor Baez, one-time defender of the league finalist, and Stefan Mijatovic, an imposing 6-5 backline player who performed for the archrival Orlando Seawolves at the end of last season. Mijatovic also scored a goal over Florida in an Orlando win.
  • Jamaican defender Stephen DeRoux, the team's first player to have competed in Major League Soccer (D.C. United)
  • Veteran forward Efrain Martinez, signed from Rio Grande Valley and has a history of arena goals, and goalkeeper Rainer Hauss, who earned all-league rookie honors in 2017-18. They won't play in Friday's season opener due to visa issues.

"We have so many new faces that are in the roster," Roberts said. "So, it's more or less a new identity that has been created for the Tropics."

Signing talent is one thing. Getting them to play together and have them understand their roles is another matter. During the last month in pre-season, Roberts liked what he saw "in what everyone is calling an all-star team."

"These guys are for me are living up to the reputation," he said. "I want to give kudos to the team for coming in and for having a team first mentality. The biggest hurdle this group is going to have is: could they work together? How does it work? They've really bought into the idea that they're seeking the same thing and that's a championship. They're not going to reach that unless they get on the same page and utilize the strengths of one another. So, that's been really fun to see that develop over the last four weeks. They're ready to put it into action."

"We've got a mix of different styles that are out there," Roberts said. "Ultimately, they complement each other. What we were trying to do when we were putting this team together is get players that have experience but that would impact players, not just individually, but collectively. So, we have targets and second forwards that play really well together. They're conflicting styles from a different team might work perfectly together from this group. That's what we're seeing, that's what we're hoping for. So, it's been really fun to see kind of what we thought would be good matchups together, working together come to fruition."

The squad played in three closed-door scrimmages prior to the season opener on November 22.

"When you're producing 19 to 20 goals, things are clicking the way you thought they would. we're very happy with that," Roberts said.

With 16 players allowed to dress for each game, not every player will get an opportunity to compete. But that also gives the Tropics something valuable over the course of a five-month season -- depth.

"Someone has commented that we have too many players," Roberts said. "You have to have depth. I've never known an indoor team with just roster 15 players to their team, 16 now with the rule change, and those 16 players play every game. The depth of a team is what wins it. We saw that in Milwaukee's season last year. Even when they had some injuries, the depth of the team kept them in stride with what they were doing. You can go down the list on teams that have won that way."

The Tropics kick off the season with back-to-back road derby encounters against the Orlando Seawolves, which is about an hour or so down I-4 in Florida. The Tropics prevailed with a 3-2 victory in the first, the second will be played Thursday, Dec. 5. What a way to start.

"That's a great way to start off the season," Roberts said. "To open up two games at their place and have them back at our place for the opener [vs. Orlando on Dec. 14], we essentially have this little series with Orlando before the first third of the season has completed. It's going to be very much a big part of our playoff push."

As it turns out, Roberts wasn't able to attend the opener because the college team he coaches, Southeastern University of Lakeland, Fla. played against John Brown University in the NAIA tournament first round in Columbia, Ky. that night. 

"We're all very clear on the plan," he said. "We had a two-hour-meeting in the office to go over the game plan and strategy, which has been in play for four weeks. So, we're very prepared for Friday."

As it turns out, the Tropics' early season travels will take them to Milwaukee for the defending champion Waves' home opener on Dec. 7.

"That's when they're going to be passing out their championship rings and everything," Economides said. "So I keep telling those guys" 'You want to make a statement? Go in there and beat Milwaukee. That's going to send shockwaves throughout the league, especially on a night like that." 

While the Tropics enter the season confident, they are hardly arrogant. Economides wanted to temper things.

"Everybody's excited for the season to get started. We can't wait," he said. "The guys have been training. I think they're ready to kill somebody. They've been training for the last month. They're dying to get out there. But as I tell everybody, I have never, in the history of sports, seen one game won on paper."

That's true, but the Tropics have positioned themselves well for one memorable ride.