Spring training in Florida has always meant baseball in March. That used to be especially true in St. Petersburg, where over the years Al Lang Stadium was the spring home for teams like the Yankees, Orioles, Mets, Cardinals and the early years of the Devil Rays.
But for the second straight year, the biggest professional soccer league in the United States, Major League Soccer, is bringing some of its teams to Tampa Bay two weeks to play in the Suncoast Invitational. Since Al Lang Stadium has been converted from a baseball field to a soccer pitch, it is now a perfect venue for soccer spring training.
The Montreal Impact will train at Al Lang for a second straight year. Philadelphia will train in Clearwater at the Joe DiMaggio Complex a third straight year. Additionally, two teams training in nearby Bradenton — D.C. United and Chicago — will make their way to St. Petersburg to play matches. Those exhibitions begin on Saturday and end with a triple-header at Al Lang on Feb. 25. Toronto, which lost the MLS Cup to Seattle this past season, will come over from Orlando to play Chicago on the 25th.
"It only makes sense to us that we follow the model that baseball has followed for many, many years with regards to spring training,'' said Philadelphia Union chief business officer Tim McDermott, who pointed out that it was 31 degrees in Philadelphia on Monday. "It allows us to accelerate our training and also bring a little bit more exposure to our league and our fans. The city of Clearwater has been great to work with and this is something I only see growing in the future.''
Montreal took over Al Lang last season. The Impact trained at the stadium and stayed across the street at the Hilton Hotel. It will do the same this season. The team arrived in St. Petersburg on Tuesday and will stay through the 25th.
The Impact, which finished with 11 wins, 11 losses and 12 ties last season in MLS, will play Philadelphia, D.C. United and the Rowdies during its 11-day stay. This year's MLS season begins on March 3.
"What's important to us at this stage of the spring is that we are getting good training at good facilities and playing MLS competition," impact technical director Adam Braz said. "That's what we got last year, and even though the Rowdies are not in MLS, we still got a good game against them last season. So we decided to duplicate our plans this season. I see this as something we could do for many years in the future.''
The Rowdies are the beneficiary of the MLS teams training locally. Although they are in the United Soccer League, the host Rowdies will play against both Philadelphia and Montreal on consecutive Saturdays. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is making a pitch for his team to join MLS when it expands. They are on a list of 10 potential cities for the two expansion spots.
Playing against MLS teams also prepares the Rowdies for their season, which begins March 25.
"We can sit here and play college teams in the area all we want,'' said Rowdies goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who played in MLS for 10 years with the Chicago Fire and Colorado Rapids. "But when these guys come down here we need to take advantage of playing quality teams like that. We need to test ourselves against a so-called higher level. And I think for the MLS teams it's good to see other opponents like us. The goal is not to get three points. It's about starting the spring off right and developing good habits.''