Major League Soccer Pre-Season Series

2014 Third-place Travel Writing, Class A-B, Florida Press Club, “Major League Soccer chooses IMG Academy as pre-season hub” series

While checking emails of public officials, I stumbled upon some information about a mega sports-tourism initiative in Manatee County. After FOIAs and interviews, I was able to get an exclusive, beating national outlets, that Major League Soccer would choose IMG Academy as its East Coast hub for the pre-season. This was a similar approach to how teams use Tucson, Ariz., as a West Coast hub.

MLS could never develop a true spring training set-up like baseball just because how soccer teams train. So, even while IMG received the hub designation, they would still train in other cities before and after their stop in Bradenton. The concept evolved in the second year with a pre-season tournament.

The award is in one of the toughest categories to win in a Florida press contest—tourism. And that it competed against entries in Class A (Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, et. al), demonstrated that judges saw something worthwhile.

Here are each of the stories in the series:

AUGUST 21, 2013 12:00 AM

Bradenton vying to be official Major League Soccer preseason hub

Pre-season soccer could provide a boom to sports tourism in Manatee

BLOG: FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2014

Major League Soccer players, staff give Bradenton social media love

Major League Soccer players and staff are giving a peek into how they’re spending their time in Bradenton and Sarasota thanks to Twitter and Instagram.

Probably the most active team showing off the area is the Columbus Crew and its players. There are photos of the guys going for a beach run in team uniform, others hanging out poolside and visiting youth academy players.

Retired Columbus Crew player Frankie Hejduk is hanging out with his team as a brand ambassador (a front-office fan position) and the team’s official website posted that the avid skateboarder took some off time and visited a pawn shop to buy a skateboard before heading to the Riverwalk skate park, posting a short video on the Crew’s Instagram account.

Think about what happened. Hejduk won the MLS Cup in 2008 with the Crew and another one in 2011 with Los Angeles Galaxy and is a two-time Olympian and represented the United States at two World Cups.

This champion decided like a regular skateboarding Joe to plop down some cash for a board and take a spin in a public park overlooking Manatee River with teens nearby. They perhaps did not know who was skating with them at first.

The team puts out a video to expose folks to Bradenton and hey, not only is there MLS soccer here, but a skatepark worthy enough for a pro.

Beyond that, other players and staff on the Crew and other teams are being great ambassadors for the Bradenton-Sarasota area with their tweets and pics.

Crew players Tony Chani and Kevan George at Pier 22 on Instagram with fans giving the players some local dining tips, suggesting they go to Anna Maria Island Oyster Bar, Woody’s River Roo, BeachHouse Restaurant, Pacific Rim Sushi and Mixons Fruit Farms. A few other players spent one of their first nights in town grabbing dinner at Fav’s Italian Cucina on Old Main Street.

D.C. United athletic trainer Brian Gerlach posted some interesting photos of how a soccer team takes over a waterfront hotel. The United are staying at the Hyatt Regency and one of the conference rooms overlooking the boat docks is now a training room where players get massages and treatment for their bumps and bruises. I’m sure the players don’t mind the tropical view while on the mend.

Gerlach also gave United fans a tease, wowing them with Sarasota sunsets, time at the pool and kayaking on Sarasota Bay. Not a bad way to spend some down time between soccer matches.

Check out more photos of MLS players in the Bradenton area via my Storify.

FEBRUARY 9, 2014

Soccer fans celebrate, critique MLS preseason at IMG Academy

Fans who attended Major League Soccer games at IMG Academy were impressed with games, opportunity for more in Bradenton.
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