By any reasonable expectation, Tormenta F.C. should not have qualified two clubs for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, let alone be a partner in a new stadium project that will anchor a $150 million entertainment development.
For one thing, the club is located in Statesboro, Georgia. a town with a population of just 32,000. For another, this is the home of Georgia Southern, a six-time FCS division national football champion, in a region that has never been viewed as a soccer hotbed.
(Tormenta FC are putting fans in the stands despite being in so-called Football Country)
“Imagine if there was a soccer franchise next to Alabama’s football stadium, how outlandish that would sound,” said John Miglarese, head coach of the club’s USL League One team and vice president for player development. “To have the audacity to drop a franchise in the middle of football country is saying a lot. But the most hard-nosed football fans are some of our biggest fans too.”
Soccer in a Football World
Tormenta F.C., has pressed on, with grand ambition and matching success. The club’s president, Darin Van Tassell, has overseen a rapid expansion since founding the club in 2015, and the fruits of his efforts were clear when the 2019 U.S. Open Cup’s First Round schedule was released. Tormenta, in League One, is set to face the Greenville Triumph on Wednesday. A day before, on Tuesday, the organization’s amateur team, Tormenta2, from USL League Two (formerly the Premier Development League or PDL), will host a Cup match against the Red Wolves of Chattanooga.
“When you think that the New York Red Bulls are the only other club with two teams qualified for the tournament, it’s pretty exciting,” Van Tassell said. “We’re a single franchise. We train together, live together, grow together.”
Before this venture, Van Tassell was mostly involved with amateur baseball and was the competition director in that sport at the Beijing Olympics. He was raised in Statesboro, and thought his hometown needed a minor league pro sport of some kind. Baseball farm systems are complex institutions involving affiliations. Creating a pro soccer club was a lot easier.
(A rendering of what the future stadium in Statesboro will look like)
“I learned a lot about international sports structure,” Van Tassell said. “I knew that soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. and I was eager to turn where we live into a minor-league city. Soccer was perfect for that. Baseball is saturated and you only can do it with the permission of Major League Baseball.”
The name Tormenta means storm in Spanish, and the club’s shield features an ibis, a bird native to Georgia that is famous for being the last animal to retreat from a storm and the first to reappear afterward. “Bringing professional soccer to a market our size means you better stay out in the rain and work a bit longer than all the others,” Van Tassell added.
Breaking Ground – Literally & Figuratively
The commitment to this team was never clearer than when Van Tassell took part in a groundbreaking ceremony in March for a new soccer stadium, part of an entertainment project that will include stores and movie theaters. The men’s and women’s soccer teams from Georgia Southern will also play there. The hope is that this center will become a regional draw reaching all the way to Savannah, an hour’s drive away. The town of Statesboro has chipped in with a new road and is helping with other infrastructure needs.
That leaves the matter, for now, of going out and competing in Open Cup games with an ever-changing roster. Tormenta’s League One team is relatively set for the season, and includes international players like midfielders Lucas Coutinho from Brazil and Marco Micaletto, an Italian-born player from England. Miglarese has worked hard to recruit these players from other USL sides through network contacts he made over the years. The lineup is skilled enough to play a technical, possession-oriented offense. Tormenta defeated Greenville 1-0 in the first match of the season and hopes to repeat that result on Wednesday.
(With two teams at the club - one in USL League One & another in USL League Two - Tormenta FC are aiming high)
“The overwhelming majority of our guys are first-year pros,” said Miglarese, who played soccer at Georgia Southern and was also an assistant coach there. “They may want to play all 10 years here, or some have their eyes on MLS.”
Tormenta2 is a bit more of a work in progress. The club was ranked among the top dozen amateur sides after last season’s successes, thereby qualifying for the Cup. The nature of League Two, however, almost guarantees a revolving-door roster.
Ian Cameron, who also coaches at Eckerd College in Florida, is in his first year with Tormenta2 and is trying to fit together the pieces as they arrive on the scene. College players were still showing up late last week, after exams. By Thursday, he had seven. By Friday, there were 11.
“They have finals, they’re filtering in,” Cameron said. “It’s an obstacle, but an unbelievable opportunity. You take the adrenaline of exams over and you get a chance to play an Open Cup game, against Chattanooga from our same division.”
Two Tormentas – Two Approaches
Cameron is from Glasgow, Scotland, and his accent definitely sticks out as a wee-bit different in South Georgia. “I found out a long time ago that in America everybody thinks you’re a soccer expert if you have an accent,” he said, laughing. “So I purchased this one on Amazon.com.”
(With two Tormentas in the 2019 Open Cup, there's likely to be some friendly ribbing at the club)
The two clubs may train together, but there can be no call-ups or the college kids from Tormenta2 would lose their amateur status and eligibility. In any case, the two coaches have different playing backgrounds and philosophies. Cameron was an attacking player and admits his clubs may err on the side of aggression. Miglarese was a goalkeeper, so his priorities are different.
Van Tassell is happy to have them both, in any case. While he cannot realistically hope that either side will win the Cup, there are other incentives. The amateur team that advances the farthest gets a $25,000 prize, as does the USL League One club (the third tier in American pro soccer) that staves off elimination the longest. According to Cup rules, two sides from the same club cannot meet until the final.
“I like the structure, the built-in incentives,” Van Tassell said.
It is a simple knockout tournament with the sort of soccer drama that anybody can enjoy – even an American football fan from Georgia.