USL League Two club will kick off debut season in May

By Official Florida FC

Sarasota may not have the soccer scene that its sister cities in the state possess. Marcus Walfridson is working to change that.

Walfridson, a former academy and professional coach in Norway and Sweden, is the Managing Director of the Sarasota Paradise. The club will kick off its inaugural season in USL League Two in May.

Sarasota will play in the Southeast Division in the Southern Conference. Orlando-based Nona FC won the division with a 12-1-1 record, ending The Villages SC’s two-year run atop the division.

Walfridson recently spoke with Official Florida FC about the club, how it will be operated and how much soccer has developed on the Suncoast in recent years.

Why now? Why Sarasota?

The why Sarasota is easy to answer. That’s literally our name. I think it’s paradise. Immediately, when I came to the area, I fell in love. This feels like home. Since 2019, we’ve been working on this project of starting a team in Florida. We quickly identified this area as a place to be.

In September 2021, we did the final check. …We looked at all the markets on the Florida west coast. I came in on a Wednesday evening. It was 7:30 p.m. I parked my car, walked down Main Street. The vibe said ‘Yes, this is home.’

I had that feeling once before in my life. In 2007, I drove into the Norwegian city, Moss. I drove through a tunnel and felt ‘Yes, this is home.’ I stayed there for 7 years.

I was coaching the highest levels of Scandinavia. I left my job in Summer 2018. I traveled. I thought coaching wasn’t for me anymore. I felt I gave that enough energy and time. I felt I made it to a decent level. I thought ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ I always had the American dream. I wanted to live in the U.S. I still think it’s the best country in the world.

(Walfridson envisioned starting a soccer club as a way to combine his desire for living and working in the United States with his passion for, and knowledge of, the sport.)

Describe the challenge of hitting the ground running?

It’s going to be interesting this year. The key thing when you want to hit the ground running is you have (to) have a very good coaching staff that is well connected to good players.

They should know enough players. From the lessons I have learned as a coach – if you bring in players you have worked with before it speeds up the process. They know your ins and outs and can translate to other players.

(Head coach Andy Thomson), he’s a great human being, which is always going to be my No. 1 tool when looking for a coach or any staff member.

There are a lot of coaches out there that don’t. obviously, he knows what he is doing with mythology or have similar ideas of how the game should be played and how the game should be taught.

He is a check on all of those parameters. He has connections to the area, given that he worked at IMG. He has a lot of knowledge of players who have a local connection.

We want to have players on our team who have a local connection. Ideally, we would have a lot of players born and raised in Sarasota. At least they know the area or are known in the area.

You told the Sarasota Herald-Tribute ‘If you had said 20 years ago that you were going to start a soccer team in Sarasota, I’d have probably said you were an idiot.’ How much has the game grown on the Suncoast from your perspective?

 It’s the growth in the country. The last 10 years you have seen epic growth in terms of viewership and attendance. It has to do with younger generations wanting to have more constant stimuli. When you have commercial breaks every two minutes, it becomes super boring, super fast.

The growth here has a lot to do with the demographic growth. Sarasota is a good case where even 5 or 10 years ago, it wouldn’t make sense to have a soccer team here.

The 2026 World Cup will be in the United States and there will be matches played a few hours from you in Miami. How much is that going to help you all?

A lot. A lot of what we see in the soccer boom, the USL is going to do really well in the next couple years. A lot of that is driven of the 2026 World Cup. …club values will appreciate, especially toward the World Cup and past that.

The same thing happened in 1994 and the launch of MLS. I think everyone is working very hard and diligently for the World Cup. It’s a target for investors and a lot of club builders like myself.

 It’s a huge economic driver for the sport and in general. …it’s also an interest build. The (2022) World Cup (was) in Qatar, but it was hyped more in this country because of the 2026 World Cup. It would not have been as hyped if the next world cup had not been here.

For us who love the game, it helps all of us. It gets people who are not interested in the game. Its exposure and it helps all of us.

I don’t know how many people fell in love with the 1994 World Cup, but it’s a lot of people. I think the same thing will happen in 2026.

(Walfridson shared an anecdote that he was in his native Sweden during the 1994 World Cup. When Sweden beat Romania in penalty kicks to advance to its first World Cup semifinal in 36 years, he recalled people celebrating in fountains.)

What are lessons from the Sarasota Metropolis that you plan to implement with the Paradise?

Florida Elite midfielder Johan Rajaee (front) bring the ball under his spell during the first half of a USL League Two contest against Sarasota Metropolis FC. Florida Elite won 3-1 to move up to second in the Southeast Division standings with 19 points from 10 matches. [WILL BROWN/THE St. AUGUSTINE RECORD]

It has reinforced the belief in the way we want to do things. The Metropolis reinforced our strategy. Our strategy from the get go is we want a club that is community focused and based.

You need to build that trust. You need to do the things you say you’re going to do. …Sure, we’re going to bring excitement and joy with the games. But, it’s even more important what we do outside the field.

How can we be a force to help more players play in our local youth clubs? If we can get more kids to play soccer, we will have better players and eventually we will have better players.

If you’re not doing things to help other people and help the community you live in, what do you do?

We need to do more than play our game. We need to help the community as a whole. We can help the community in a lot of different ways. …We cannot sit back and say people will come. Why should they care? We should make them care. That’s our job.