It was a pretty good week last week for sports fans in Polk, especially if soccer is your thing.
First, local soccer fans are getting a new team to root for — The Tropics SC, of the United Premier Soccer League — which is cool. Even cooler, though, is the idea that the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup could pay Auburndale a visit in May.
Commonly known as The U.S. Open Cup, it is the third-oldest tournament in the world, and basically serves as our country's soccer championship. It is a single-elimination, knockout-style tournament that starts in places like Auburndale and ends in a Major League Soccer stadium.
It has been 20 years since the last non-MLS team has run the table, and ironically, there's a connection to the team local fans hope to be rooting for in a few months.
The Lakeland Tropics actually qualified for the Cup last year and were hopeful of hosting a game at historic Bryant Stadium, where the United Soccer League's League Two team drew some pretty nice crowds.
But when someone brought out the tape measure, they discovered the field was a little smaller than first thought, and the U.S. Soccer Federation said no dice on the team's bid to host a game there.
The Tropics qualified again this year – one of just 84 teams in the entire U.S. to be so honored. This time, though, they hope an Auburndale ace up their sleeve brings the Cup here.
Most people don't realize that Lake Myrtle Sports Complex had its beginnings as a soccer complex. In fact, those fields came first, before the baseball and softball diamonds that are most visible as you drive by the mammoth complex.
Tucked way in the back of the facility is a soccer field, complete with bleachers, a scoreboard and tons of space for fans to surround the field with their lawn chairs, waving bright orange Tropics towels.
It's where the new Tropics SC team in the UPSL will play it's seven game home schedule, and the team is pledging to work with Auburndale and the county – and vice versa – in putting together a bid to play a first-round game there.
“We are honored to once again be included in this great event,” Tropics CEO Dr. Panos Iakovidis said. “We have worked very hard to put a team on the field that Lakeland and Polk County can be proud of, and being part of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for a second straight year is a reward for our team and fans who have supported our efforts.”
As for the Tropics connection to the Cup?
Chris Economides, the team's Chief Operating Officer, was one of the owners of the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos that won the tournament that year, improbably defeating four MLS teams along the way to claim the honor.
That might be a little much to ask the Tropics to pull off, but hosting a Cup game here in Polk County shouldn't be.
The soccer gods might owe them that, too, after sending them all the way to Texas to play their opener in the Cup last season, which they lost, 3-0.
Now, the time — and the size — is right.