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Verlato knew them before pros

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

Second-year Crystal River soccer coach Bobby Verlato needed no introduction when he took the position. A former Pirate himself, Verlato played with current MLS star Jeff Cunningham and baseball with Mike Hampton.

After graduating in 1994, Verlato went on to Florida State University. He worked for the Department of Environmental Protection after earning his degree but caught the coaching bug. Verlato, who turned 27 last week, returned to Citrus County and spent the 2000-2001 school year as an assistant soccer coach at Citrus. He took the head Pirates position the following season after his mentor, longtime coach Dave Soluri, called it quits.

Here, Times writer Kristen Leigh Porter picks Verlato's brain about all things soccer.

* * *

KLP: Describe the experience of playing with someone with as much talent as Jeff Cunningham.

BV: At the time when I played with him, I played right beside him and he was the center-mid. He was by far the best talent in the area, and I knew he was going to be great, I didn't know how great. At that time, it was hard to gauge his ability as a high school kid. Jeffrey just had an extremely great work ethic, and he just made everyone around him better. You just knew that you were going to be seeing this kid on TV someday. The experience was amazing. In 1994, we were the district champs and Jeffrey had like 48 goals, and just playing beside a talent like him, the stands were packed. People would come to watch from all over. It was probably one of the most fun years I ever had in sports.

KLP: What was your most memorable game as a player?

BV: Probably winning the district championship by beating Lecanto my senior year. That was just awesome. It was a battle down to the wire, and we were the underdog. It came down to a couple free kicks, and it was an intense game. It was probably the best game I was ever a part of. It was only a matter of time that Jeffrey rose to the occasion with the winning kick.

KLP: What was the talent level like on those teams from the early to mid-'90s vs. the teams now?

BV: At that time, we were more one-dimensional. Jeffrey made everyone better from my playing days. The talent has definitely gotten better in this area thanks largely in part to club soccer. Probably the best team that I wasn't a part of that I've ever seen play would have been the Crystal River team from 2000-2001 that finished in the Sweet 16. They had everything. They had Donny Caldwell, who broke Jeffrey's record and scored 54 goals that year. But it wasn't a one-dimensional team. They were good in every facet of the game.

KLP: Do you think this area will see a player like Jeff Cunningham come through again?

BV: It's possible, but he was special. Point blank. Will that ever happen again? I think it will be hard because most of the kids that play soccer when they're younger, as they get into the high school level, they go to the major sports.I was a four-year starter at CRHS in baseball, so soccer became the girlfriend whereas baseball was the first love. That happens to a lot of the kids. They play soccer and they get really good at it, but they go back to the major sports and they know with baseball, basketball and football maybe they'll have a college opportunity. The last few years there have been some really good comparable ballplayers, but I don't think anybody was as complete as Jeffrey. Donny Caldwell was the most prolific scorer, but he didn't have the complete game as Jeffrey. Alex Posta, same thing, more of a scorer, but there (have) been some good ballplayers in this area. Sean O'Sullivan was down at Central, who graduated last year. Josh Caldwell (Crystal River), who I'm obviously going to be partial to, he's the total package.

KLP: How much has soccer grown in popularity as of late?

BV: About the last six years, it has definitely grown. The success of the United States team in the World Cup and the success of the women's team has helped. So has having the MLS and pro soccer. Before, a lot of the kids played soccer when they were little. They didn't have a lot of experience, weren't able to watch it because most of the good soccer is overseas. By having (an) MLS and now women's soccer in the United States (WUSA), the kids are able to actually watch it and look up to superstars. A lot of people, what they do, is they forget about soccer until it's World Cup time because it's once every four years. They're like, 'Oh, what's soccer?' Then all of a sudden they get this big push, this American pride, this 'Go Team USA.' And they forget that in those four years those guys are either playing MLS or playing overseas, busting their butts and putting a lot of effort into it.

KLP: So why did the two MLS teams in Florida end up folding?

BV: Probably because, No. 1, in the state of Florida, soccer is not a major sport. I think that's probably a reason. I used to go down to the Mutiny games, and they were never packed. They didn't have enough fan-based support. I thought it would have been a success down in Miami with the extreme Latin population and soccer being an overseas game. A lot of people don't know soccer in Florida. Football is No. 1, even college football is more important to this nation than soccer itself. I'd say that'd probably be the main reason.

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