Time for us to check in on our friends with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers professional soccer club. The Strikers despite assembling a very impressive squad which is deeper and more talented than the one that reached last year’s NASL Soccer Bowl final, are sitting level on points at the bottom of the league table currently. Part of the reason is a toxic atmosphere that has spread through the club’s supporters and possibly the players also.
Controversial Director of Soccer Andre Chaves resigned on Sunday as did Head Coach Marcelo Neveleff who was subjected to an intense fan campaign by the supporters group Flight 19 urging his ouster. The Flight 19 campaign which included printing T-shirts of former Head Coach Günter Kronsteiner and chanting from the stands a desire to see a coaching change appears to have had an impact on Neveleff’s thinking and perhaps the morale of the team. The Flight 19 campaign was successful but stands in direct contrast to the attitude of Tampa Bay Rowdies supporters group Ralph’s Mob who continued to support the club Manager Ricky Hill publicly last season as the Rowdies slipped down the NASL table. This season in Orlando, the MLS club which has two major supporters groups had differing interpretations of the team’s early struggles – the Ruckus, the larger of the two groups cheered off OCSC players after every frustrating home match while the Iron Lion Firm (ILF) expressed publicly their displeasure with results. The Ruckus’ approach was appreciated by those around the team, but the ILF which has developed a reputation for creating trouble through the years were not deterred by the criticism. Orlando City is second attendance wise in MLS averaging over 36,000 fans a game and last week announced they will privately finance their new stadium.
However, Flight 19’s campaign which was well-executed seems to have been a first for a supporters group in this state in that it essentially created an untenable situation for a sitting Head Coach. The frustration many privately have had with Flight 19 is that the group isn’t typically well-organized ,hasn’t grown its section since 2011 (it should be noted I have taken some people’s private concerns and expressed these points publicly because I agree with them – For example three weekends ago in St Petersburg, Ralph’s Mob members goaded Flight 19 members several times singing “we cannot hear you over there,” and the Flight 19 response was to simply sit on their hands and later that match the Strikers fan section did not do much cheering or singing to try and spur the team they support onward to a game-tying goal when the team really could have used it.) and haven’t always been active during home games. I would counter the final argument by saying that the atmosphere at Strikers games are lacking because the team plays in arguably the worst facility for any professional club in the United States, and that the supporters simply cannot be that effective for 90 minutes in an absolute dump of a ground.
However, the group did show it can organize well and make a difference in the last few weeks. While I would argue turning on a team and a coach after six matches of a season creates toxicity and lingering bitterness, the Flight 19 group ultimately prevailed. I firmly believe Neveleff should have been given breathing space by the fans. Instead his tenure as coach of the Strikers lasted a few short months and he was never really given the opportunity to succeed, especially given the late start the team had to preseason. This having been said, Flight 19 has won and shown its bite with the resignations and the team might be forced to placate the group in the future based on this weekend’s developments.
From a commercial perspective the Strikers under new ownership are doing well. The club has sold its first shirt sponsorship, to Azul Airlines of Brazil. The average attendance has increased by over 50%, with the team averaging over 6,300 fans a game as compared to an average of 4,001 a game last season. However, the results have not followed but the new ownership is arguably as far along as Minnesota’s owners were in 2013 and Tampa Bay was under Bill Edwards in 2014. Both clubs have ownership groups that after rocky starts are now excelling and Minnesota is in fact headed to MLS next year.
Regardless of what many might think of the Strikers owners, no doubt every single fan will be thankful they liberated the club from Traffic Sports, the former owners who are the heart of the FIFA scandal and its residual impact on NASL. One last note is that Ricardo Lopes who had been an Assistant Coach with the club since 2006 was fired Sunday, ending nine and a half seasons as a fixture with the team.