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Building talent from the field up

The small South Hillsborough Soccer League has hired a former Mutiny player to help keep local talent from seeking out more established clubs.

Published July 30, 2004

APOLLO BEACH - No jewelry.

This is the final prepractice advice Kalin Bankov dispenses to the semicircle of teenage soccer players crowded around him at Vance V. Vogel Park near Apollo Beach.

"I've seen things," he warns. Like the goaltender, he says, whose finger was almost ripped off because another player's cleat caught a ring beneath his glove.

The players stare back at him, stretching their quads and swatting at the no-see-ums buzzing in the thick evening air. This may or may not be the reaction Bankov was hoping for. But he, too, remains unfazed. He orders two warmup laps around the field.

"I don't want to see a leader!" barks the bronze Bulgarian. "Together, as a group!" And off the team jogs, clustered no more than a few feet apart.

The tight-knit team's newfound unity may be the key to helping squads from the relatively small South Hillsborough Soccer League compete with larger clubs throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Bankov, the league's new director of coaching, is sure to relish in that success. The league hired the former Tampa Bay Mutiny and Bulgarian national team star this spring in hopes of keeping more of South Hillsborough's soccer talent at home, rather than merely grooming the area's best players for spots on more established clubs, such as Brandon.

"We've had teams, but they've been good teams, not great teams," says league president Troy Zajac. "The better players have left to get better training and to play with better players. This is going to help eliminate that and allow the homegrown player to stay in our club."

Coaches have already noticed a more positive atmosphere. Players who left South Hillsborough for other local clubs have returned to learn the game under Bankov, who spends at least an hour a week with each of the league's six teams.

"He relates real well to the kids, and they respect him," said John McGartland, coach of the under-15 boys team, which has traditionally finished in the lower tier of the standings. "With this training, I truly expect to win our division this year."

Bankov, who has coached and trained in Pinellas and Pasco counties has long hoped to lead a team in Hillsborough County. That South Hillsborough Soccer is based in Apollo Beach is a bonus - he is familiar with the area, having lived there when he played for the Mutiny.

"Coaching is not just going out on the field to play," says Bankov, 39. "You have to be a psychologist. You have to be a guy who understands not just one person. You have to understand 13, 16, 18 different characters. You have to make them think like one. You have to understand their parents. You have to understand your opponents. You have to understand every single person."

It is a job for which Bankov has been preparing his entire life, since playing in the state-run youth leagues of communist Bulgaria. He was recognized as a star in the making at 9, and signed his first professional contract at 17. By age 20, he was playing for Bulgaria's national team.

After stints with lower-level teams in Tennessee and Minnesota, Bankov had an offer on the table from Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire. Instead, he signed in 2000 with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, where he had friends in the front office.

Bankov notched a goal and an assist during his 18 games in Tampa. But the Mutiny folded in six seasons, whereas the Fire are still around today. This weighs on Bankov, who often finds himself wondering what might have been had he signed with Chicago.

"Maybe I'd stay in Chicago and play, and just see if I can be a coach," he said.

Bankov blames poor management and coaching - he was forced to play out of position, he says - for the Mutiny's demise. But he, his wife and two children have made Tampa their home, so he harbors no ill will toward the community.

"These kids right here, they grow up very healthy, they are very athletic," he says. "You can find a lot of kids in the United States who are good soccer players if somebody explains or helps them to develop their skills.

"That's why I'm here - to try to build more talent."

Coaching in Hillsborough County, where hundreds of children and parents congregate for youth league games, is no small task. He knows a certain amount of pressure comes with the job.

"Everybody now expects me to be with everybody, to help everybody," Bankov says. "They think we can definitely be a better club."

But he sees no reason why South Hillsborough Soccer can't compete with Brandon, Carrollwood and Temple Terrace when league play begins in August.

"I came from a small club in my country," he says. "And then I went all the way up."

At practice, McGartland watches Bankov lead a passing drill at midfield when up walks a 14-year-old player in street clothes, a former South Hillsborough standout who recently switched to Brandon.

"Is that the new trainer?" she asks.

"Yes," McGartland says.

The player eyes Bankov. "Is he good?"

"He's excellent."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or


AGE: 39.

FAMILY: Wife Svetla, 36; children Bianka, 16, and Daniel, 10.

LIVES IN: Westchase.

CURRENT GIG: Coaching director for South Hillsborough Soccer.

PREVIOUS LOCAL COACHING GIGS: Coach of an under-18 boys club in Dunedin; trainer for West Pasco Soccer Club and coach for the under-18 West Pasco Premier Soccer Team.

MAJOR LEAGUER: Played in 18 games for the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2000-01, scoring one goal and one assist.

OTHER FORMER TEAMS: Rochester Rhinos, Minnesota Thunder and Nashville Metros, A-League; many Bulgarian teams, including the national and Olympic squads.

HOBBIES: Fishing and golf. "In Bulgaria, we don't have golf, so I enjoy going to hit some balls."

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Bankov scored a goal for Bulgaria during a 1990 World Cup qualifying match against Greece.

[Last modified July 29, 2004, 13:01:06]

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