Miami FC counting on Italian mystique in fight for South Florida

Miami FC

Riccardo Silva is betting his Milan connections will solve Miami's pro soccer puzzle. As Steve Brenner discovered, the project's off to an ambitious start.

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MIAMI -- The hopefuls who came to Miami FC with a dream had no idea what was in store.

They knew legendary former AC Milan and Lazio defender Alessandro Nesta would be casting his eye over the impressive 200 soccer wannabes, all of whom paid $200 for the opportunity to land a roster slot with the NASL’s newest team on the block. Everyone, too, was aware that Nesta, in his role as manager, would discuss everything with another legendary figure, Paolo Maldini, one of the true greats of Italian and world soccer who is part-owner of the team.

To have those two icons judging your every move is tough enough. Yet, there was someone else watching. Another superstar, albeit hidden. Melting into the sidelines was Azzurri legend Christian Vieri, a man who was the costliest player on the planet after his $45 million move from Lazio to Inter Milan in 1999. American Idol has nothing on this kind of scrutiny.

“They didn’t know Vieri was there, he was in disguise” said Miami FC’s general manager Cesar Velasco, smiling as he sat down with FourFourTwo to explain the latest attempt to crack South Florida's soccer market. “They know now, though. He came to both trials with some other friends of Nesta.

“[The ex-players] all live in the city, so they can come to training, and the players are now getting used to having these guys around.”

When Italian television rights millionaire Riccardo Silva announced his NASL intentions last May, the sight of Maldini raised eyebrows, and suspicions. It looked like another attempt to attach a star’s name to an ideal. As David Beckham is discovering, simply sprinkling stardust on a project isn’t enough in Miami. Yet with Silva involved, this isn’t just a hollow ploy to keep former players in the headlines.

From the tryouts, Nesta, who has lived in Miami for three years, signed six players. Six from 200 doesn’t sound like a lot, yet these were players who thought the professional game had passed by them. Sergio van Kanten was playing semi-pro and doing odd jobs. Cuban Ariel Martinez also thought this time had gone.

Their reward of a professional contract (those who made it through the initial trial also received their $200 back) not only gives them financial security and another chance to realize their dreams, it also provides Nesta with players who are desperate to succeed.

“It’s amazing for those who came through the trials,” said Velasco, “and it also shows there is talent all over the soccer fields of this city."

“Miami has a community [that] is proud of the city. They want people to know this is their club representing them."

- Miami FC GM Cesar Velasco

They will give their all for the shirt. An average wage of around $80,000 a year will add impetus, for sure. But it’s their raw determination and drive which Nesta hopes will fuel Miami FC through this embryonic stage, forming the kind of structure Silva and his well-heeled Italian friends are so desperate to build.

The roster offers an intriguing blend: goalkeeper Mario Vega made 76 appearances for River Plate; Argentine striker Darío Cvitanich has played in France, Mexico and Holland; Wilson Palacios enjoyed decent spells in the Premier League with Stoke and Tottenham Hotspur; Brazilian Matuzalém impressed in Serie A with Napoli and Parma.

"Hopefully, next year, if we do something similar, we will have more people, because people will know this is for real," Velasco explained. "If there is talent, there will be an opportunity.”

Of course, matters on the pitch are just part of the jigsaw. Building a team from scratch in any sport can be hazardous and fraught with difficulty. Generating awareness in a city which has plenty to offer its residents and visitors will be hard enough. Filing the stadium where Nesta’s side will play, at the Florida International University, will be a slow-burner.

Velasco remains bullish, however, as does Silva, who met Maldini and Nesta while working for AC Milan’s TV channel over 15 years ago.

“Miami has a community [that] is proud of the city. They want people to know this is their club representing them,” said Velasco, whose extensive knowledge of the North American sports scene includes invaluable spells at Toronto FC, as well as NHL giants the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Twenty years ago, people came here, but didn’t stay. Now it’s different. They want the team to have their identity …”

“Miami is a city that has a lot of football fanatics. They know the sport and they demand a winning team. I have sensed the interest."

(Credit: Miami FC)

From idea of kickoff, Miami FC's sped through its year of existence. (Credit: Miami FC)

One look at Silva’s resume reveals a man who continually delivers, thanks to the business acumen of someone who made his money purchasing and selling TV rights to countless sports all over the world. Silva’s company, MP & Silva, boasts annual revenues upwards of $700 million. Italian sportswear company Macron is also on-board, giving the whole adventure a thoroughly European sensibility.

“I was raised as a fan,” Silva said, his office in downtown Miami adorned with an enormous photograph of Milan legend Marco van Basten, reinforcing his loyalties. "Maldini was a great fit because he has owned a home in Miami for 15 years … He knows the city very well -- it’s his second home -- so when I spoke to him about this opportunity, he was very interested and wanted to invest.

“He was the right person for this kind of project. Of course, Nesta was his teammate for many years, but Nesta has been living here for three years, his children are at school here … He wanted to start his coaching career, so he also was here at the right time.

The perennial debates and comparisons about MLS and NASL continue to rage whenever a story like Miami FC rears its head. Yet speaking with Silva and his acolytes, you’re left with no doubt that both Leagues can succeed with the help of one another.

“I am not sure that the closed rules of the MLS will be successful in the long term," added Silva. “The NFL, the NBA, and so on, are different. They are either the best league in the world in their sport or the only league, so it makes sense to have a closed league and use salary caps.

“But the MLS is not like that. It is probably number 10 or 15 in the world. So, the best way to grow it is to be open, for the teams to be independent. I believe the NASL has more potential, even if it is much smaller at the moment.”

When Miami FC takes to the field in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, it will have been less than a year since the idea began to become a reality. From inception to formation, the speed of the project has been remarkable.

“We have the team running in less than a year; this is pretty unusual, I have been told,” Silva confessed. “It usually takes two to three years to set up everything, but we were lucky, and it went quick.”

Silva’s been told that “that with all new players, it will take some time to get the best integration,” he says. There are similar challenges with ramping up the fan base. In the U.S., beIN Sports, CBS Sports Network, One World Sports and Gol TV, as well as ESPN 3’s stream, will all broadcast Miami FC’s games (some as part of national TV deals), meaning over 100 countries will see the action. The deal, inevitably, was brokered by Silva’s company. They are the only NASL club to have secured such extensive coverage.

Making it in Miami remains a tall task, but the overriding feeling is promising. After all, serial winners like Nesta and Maldini aren’t the kind of people who settle for second best.

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