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Floyd County Sports

January 31, 2014

PRO SOCCER: Estopinal trying to bring pro soccer to Louisville

Jeffersonville architect has plans to give River City USL franchise

JEFFERSONVILLE — Wayne Estopinal says he has learned a lot more from running marathons than playing soccer. His children spent a lot more time on the pitch than he ever did.

  For the region’s soccer fans, that may be the best news they’ve gotten in a long time.

  Estopinal, the founder of TEG Architects in Jeffersonville, one of the owners of Mockingbird Soccer Club, and one of the area’s top soccer advocates is nearing the finish line on his most ambitious plan yet — to bring professional soccer to Louisville.

  The target is the Orlando City Soccer Club of the United Soccer Leagues Pro division, a franchise in which Estopinal is a minority owner. And he has no doubt that Clark and Floyd Counties will be just as big a part of it as Metro Louisville.

“We think this is a great spot,” Estopinal said. “You’ve got so many young people in this community, and when I say community I look at it ( Louisville and Southern Indiana ) as one community. With all the talk about the bridges, we’re a region now. We don’t see it as two separate communities anymore.”

  The next step is for Estopinal to let Orlando City in on his exact proposal, which is being finalized after meetings with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer earlier this week. It’s a move which could come as soon as this weekend, but has been in the works for much longer in what has become a marathon process.

  From there, Estopinal’s group will draft and file and official letter of intent with the USL in the next two weeks and then, if the tentative plan holds together, take full control of the transition to Louisville . The team, which has not yet been named, would begin play during the 2014-15 season.

  Oddly, changes in Major League Soccer — the most popular and influential soccer league in the United States — opened the door for Estopinal’s big move.

  After this season, MLS franchises will no longer carry reserve teams, meant for player development and rehabilitation, but will instead partner with USL Pro clubs to create a system that mimics the influential setup of Major League Baseball. Essentially, each USL Pro team will function as a minor-league affiliate of an MLS club, having a similar relationship to that of the Louisville Bats and the Cincinnati Reds. Young players signed to the MLS squads will use the USL team to sharpen their skills and earn a promotion; established stars recovering from injury or an absence from the game will return in the USL before moving back up.

  Meanwhile, the current Orlando City club, partially owned by Estopinal, found out that its application to become an MSL team itself has been approved. A constant success on the USL circuit and winners of two of the last three USL championships, the Orlando City Lions are playing their last season as part of the USL, moving up to MLS for the 2014 season.

  That left an opportunity Estopinal was ready to seize. Orlando City has already agreed to use the relocated Louisville franchise as its USL affiliate.

  “Before we’ve even played a game, we’ll benefit from having a winning team in Orlando City,” Estopinal said. “We’ll be bringing the core of a USL title team to Louisville, so that’s a big deal.”

  But it isn’t yet a done deal.

  One of the major snags has been in finding a facility for Estopinal’s new team, but it’s a problem that may finally be resolved. As of now, at least the first two seasons for the franchise will be played while co-existing with the Louisville Bats at Louisville Slugger Field. The soccer club’s ownership will coordinate its schedule with that of the Bats and build days into the schedule between events to convert the baseball field into a soccer pitch. Artificial turf will be run down the first-base line to provide what Estopinal anticipates will be 9,500 seats to be sold to the public. That means the soccer team will benefit from all the modern amenities that Louisville Slugger Field, which opened in 2000, can provide, such as its large video board, concessions and, most importantly, the downtown location.

  “We think it’s a great location where our support groups can march in from all over the region,” Estopinal said. “Slugger Field would be one of the best venues in the USL from the start. We would not be second place to anyone.”

  So far, all of Estopinal’s research seems to show that the region’s soccer fans, always passionate, will turn out for a team that will be the equaivalent of a AAA baseball club, with a revolving roster of established veterans and up-and-coming stars. Estopinal says 1,200 people have already pledged that they will purchase season tickets.

  From there, Estopinal’s dreams get bigger. If the fans come out like he thinks they will, the franchise will eye a partnership with the city of Louisville for a dedicated facility for the USL club, which will then host world-class tournaments with teams from around the world. With the the right mix of strong support and attendance and a winning team, growing his USL club into a candidate for its own MLS entrance once the league opens up for new franchises again in 2020.

  In the meantime, Estopinal will focus on the task in front of him, step by step. After all, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

  “This is the sport of the millenials, not the guys who are 58 like me,” he said, noting that both his children played soccer in high school — Ashley at Sacred Heart and Andrew at St. Xavier. “You’ve got all these young people here in Metro Louisville and something will this will help to keep them here. You don’t have to move to Chicago to be a part of professional soccer. You don’t have to move to Dallas.

  “Soccer is 90 minutes of high energy. It’s like a video game and that’s what people really want. And they want to have it here.”

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