The story of Boca Raton, the American fourth tier & the ex-Brazil international

In Depth

Márcio Amoroso won 19 caps for Brazil and played in Europe for clubs including Parma and Borussia Dortmund, and he can still be found playing today, aged 43, in the American fourth tier.

Back in the early 2000s, Brazilian forward Amoroso was one of the best-paid and most highly sought-after footballers in the world.

After tearing up Serie A with Udinese, his first European club, the 1999 Copa América champion made big-money moves to Parma and then Borussia Dortmund, but his career slowed after leaving the German club in 2004 and – as he approached his mid-30s – he was on few people’s radar.

How, then, did it transpire that Amoroso could be seen still playing just last season in South Florida, where he will again take to the field this term for American fourth-tier outfit Boca Raton FC?

And how has a small club, founded this decade, found itself boasting not just Amoroso but also Brazil-born Ukraine international Edmar and Campeonato Brasiliero veteran Luizão, with one-time Juventus left-back Athirson joining as coach for the 2017 campaign, their first in America’s NPSL?

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“I met Amoroso when he was on vacation in Florida, and when I asked him if he wanted to play for us he just laughed at first,” Boca Raton FC president Douglas Heizer tells me over Skype.

“He had been retired for many years, but I told him he could think about it and let me know.”

Heizer previously worked in amateur football in his native Brazil but describes his background in the sport as first and foremost as a fan of Flamengo, where Amoroso played before moving to Udine.

He admits this has helped him populate the Boca Raton squad: “Just like when a team here gets an English coach he will bring English players”.

Through Heizer’s connections he was able to secure conversations with Ze Maria and Rivaldo, with the latter convincing his former Bunyodkor team-mate Luizão to move to Southern Florida.

“When Amoroso saw that we had Luizão maybe he thought there’s something here,” Heizer says. “He played a couple of games last season [when Boca Raton won the APSL spring 2016 and fall 2016 championships] and also has a licence to use the Boca Raton FC brand in Brazil, where he acts as an ambassador.”

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READ: Rivaldo: The story of a great player in a not so great Barcelona team

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Amoroso is not the only Brazilian star to play at this level in recent years, where crowds are generally in the hundreds, and the standard can be generously described as mixed.

The NPSL is recognised as the fourth tier in the United States, but without relegation and promotion the overall setup doesn’t really have an equivalent in leading European football nations.

The impact of Amoroso

With such short seasons (more on that later), some owners can see the benefit in bringing a big name over just for a few months, but Heizer has longer-term plans in mind.

With that in mind, he believes the signings of Amoroso, Luizão and Edmar are different to Miami Dade FC’s recruitment of former wunderkind Kerlon, or even Miami United’s much-heralded signing of Adriano last season.

“Adriano is a different player to Amoroso,” Heizer says. “He was in Miami last season, but where is he now?

“I am good friends with Roberto [Sacca, owner of Miami United] but, with respect, I don’t want a player just for one year.

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“Amoroso isn’t like the new stars, he’s an old star,” he laughs.

“People can watch him play and it will make a difference. Amoroso can teach these players about how football works, not just how to play.”

Indeed, while the veteran is now only expected to feature for the club in exhibition matches, his impact has already been felt.

“Being on the field with [younger players] is the best type of assistance I can give them,” Amoroso tells me, through a club representative.

“They are very eager to learn and it makes it easier for me because of that. I’ve been able to show them how to slow down the game when needed, and just have better time management throughout the entire game.

“The technical skill is much higher in South America, but American players tend to be fit and many have good skills as well.”

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As well as the differences in the football pyramid, the structure of each individual football season is markedly different in the United States compared to more established football countries.

At MLS level, and even to a degree with the NASL and USL, the strain of long-distance travel comes into play (exacerbated by teams only being allowed a certain number of charter flights per season), so the March-November season structure is perhaps the limit of what players can accommodate.

The problems of the fourth tier

However, the NPSL set-up is far more localised, with the 96 teams competing in 2017 being split into 14 different regional conferences. Yet those involved have just six months’ worth of competitive fixtures and – in Boca Raton’s case – can sometimes have a tough time finding opponents for friendlies during their downtime.

“The biggest frustration is finding teams to play against to play all year round,” Heizer admits, noting that this is just part of how football works in a country with a tradition of playing certain sports at certain times of the year.

“We have to play teams that are here for pre season or mid-season tours, like Shakhtar, São Paulo, the Jamaica national team.”

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READ: The story of the blogger who met Pep and got work with Bielsa & Sampaoli

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It is for this reason, Heizer claims, that Athirson has not been asked to commit to a long-term contract in charge of the first team.

“I want him to see the United States, to know what it’s about so he doesn’t get frustrated,” Heizer says.

Boca Raton’s first season playing in both the NPSL and APSL presented some challenges, but if the club’s management are serious about their long-term ambitions then it was never really about this year.

They ended the NPSL campaign in the bottom half of the table, missing out on the season-ending play-offs by a comfortable margin, though it was a different story in the APSL where they responded to an opening-day defeat with 10 points from four games before falling short in the play-offs.

Quality better than you’d think

Athirson will have more time to prepare a young squad for the fall season, having arrived in Florida only a short time before the spring campaign, but he has already taken some positives.

“The system is different in the United States [and] we found it difficult to keep players fit for a season which is short, but is congested from a fixture standpoint,” the head coach explains.

“We will integrate more youth players into the squad in coming competitions. American players are not as tactically sound as many of the South American or European players but some are very good and I was impressed by the level of our squad and our opposition this season.”

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READ: Where are they now? Brazil’s XI which beat England at the 2002 World Cup

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The lack of a football culture even close to what he is accustomed to in Brazil extends to those playing at college level, many of whom form part of the pool from which clubs in Southern Florida can draw potential first-team talent.

Still, the facilities are at a higher quality than one might come to expect of this level of football elsewhere, with Luizão saying “Uzbekistan [where he played with Bunyodkor] has a more professional setup, but here the facilities we train in and play are just as good despite this being a semi-professional team.”

Heizer’s goal is to make the team self-sustaining within five years, with at least half of the first team being made up of academy players. One squad member has already made the jump up.

Many of the younger players at the club have been recruited through open trials, as is often the norm lower down the American pyramid (and on occasion as high up as MLS, USL or NASL).

Boca Raton has the advantage of being able to draw from two local universities, Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University, and the club has expressed its desire to work closely with the local community, but there still isn’t as much of a soccer culture as in Europe or South America.

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“Soccer has always been healthy in South Florida but people will play soccer for only some of the year and then they’ll also play football or baseball, so if I ask someone ‘are you a soccer player?’ they don’t know how to answer,” Heizer says.

The arrival of more established players ought to change this, however, providing up-and-coming players with someone to look up, someone with tangible achievements in the game, someone who is willing and eager to share his wisdom with the next generation.

Long-term plans for Boca Raton

For example, while Edmar might be the wrong side of 30, he is still arguably the hungriest player in the squad and has been showing no signs of wanting to wind down his career. Money is clearly not the main inspiration for someone who could easily find a club in Europe, and all signs suggest he has gone full-blooded into his newest challenge.

He explains how he was excited by the project and “the type of squad that was being built”, suggesting this is very much a long-term thing. If Amoroso can remain active into his 40s, what’s to stop players a few years his junior from making the most of the slower pace of life and still-developing style of football?

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So, where does Heizer see Boca Raton FC a decade from now?

Luizão and Edmar are due to return in 2018, following spells in Brazil and Ukraine respectively, while Heizer remains coy on the identity of other experienced players who may find themselves at the club next year

Could we yet see a third Floridian team in MLS after Orlando City and the soon-to-be-launched new Miami franchise? Or perhaps they’ll look to get a foot on the USL or NASL ladder? Not necessarily, it seems.

“Our commitment is to bring the higher level of professional soccer to this community without compromising our values or our brand,” a recent announcement from the club explains.

Big-name arrivals will only mean a push for a move to a higher league if it works for the club, and Heizer’s comments reflect this.

“Fans here don’t care about letters in front of a league, just want to see a good team and have a good experience,” he says.

“In 10 years? Maybe we can have a player for the national team.”

By Tom Victor

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