Florida Roots see bright future after struggles in first season
The life of an expansion team in any sports league is almost always a bumpy ride. There is the excitement of new beginnings, the promise of what might come in the future, but there is rarely, if ever, much payoff involved.
This was certainly the case during the inaugural season of Florida Roots, the first semi-pro football club based in Bay County since the Panama City Pirates disbanded in 2014.
The Roots have struggled a lot this season, scoring just one win in 14 games with two draws to end with just five points for the year. That placed them comfortably in the basement of the Gulf Coast Conference of the NPSL, eight points behind Tallahassee, seventh, and 15 points from fourth in the playoffs.
While the losses have been frustrating for players and coaches, team owner and president Jonathan Hammond said the season has unfolded in a fairly predictable way.
“I think it kind of turned out as we hoped,” he said. “I felt like it would be a learning curve considering it was our first year in the league just to see where we were up to our plan to showcase local players. We knew a bit about that. more about the league and the players who were going to play there.
“We knew there would be Division I players and players who played in MLS before, so we knew it was going to be tough and we always said we could take a few pieces in the first season, but that we would help prepare us for the next one Having said that, I think we did a good job overall. ”
Hammond said he believed the team were more competitive than their final record indicated, citing nine games that were decided by two goals or less, including four against playoff teams.
Of course, there were also some very lopsided losses along the way, like 5-0 against Jacksonville Armada, 4-0 against Southern States and 6-2 against Pensacola in the season finale, which helped the Worst league goal differential under-26. .
But flashes of competitiveness, especially against some of the best teams in the conference, give Hammond hope that there are better days to come.
“We have been in many close games that have ended in a loss of a goal or two,” he said. “There are four teams in the playoffs and one that we lost 1-0 on a own goal, one that we tied 3-3 in their place, one that we lost by a goal and one that we lost. we lost by two so we’re right there. Having one of the youngest teams in the conference, I think it shows us that if we can keep that core group together and add more players than we do. can compete. “
The Roots roster has been made up mostly of young players with local ties, 14 of whom have roots in Bay County and 15 were born in 2000 or later. While Hammond has said there will be a few tweaks going forward, he will take the same basic approach to roster building going forward.
“I think there are a few small changes that we’re definitely going to look to make, but I think we’re sticking to our plan to develop these young players and help them go out and play college football while providing them with a place. to play in the summer, ”he said. “We said that from the start and nothing has happened this year that will not change that. The majority of these players will continue to be local. I’m not saying that we are not looking for players outside the zone. because we need these players to compliment what we have here.
“We’ve had a few of these players this year and some of them have done really well. The hard part is that some of these guys, especially the older guys, were balancing football and their full-time job, so that made it difficult. some of them to attend training sessions and even a few games. It hurts the team if everyone is not there. We are looking for 100% engaged players.
In the coming weeks, the process of finding those players will begin, Hammond said, with the team first evaluating their current players and deciding who will return and who will move on.
Anyone who ends up on next year’s squad, expectations will almost certainly be higher than in 2021. Fighting for a place in the conference top four can be unrealistic in year two, although Hammond has said it does. shouldn’t be much longer before the Roots are a legitimate contender for the playoffs.
“I would say that in two years we should make the playoffs,” he said. “I think next year we can get closer to it and maybe if the ball bounces once or twice, maybe we can get there, but I think in two years we should be there.”
It’s a confidence that from the outside, looking from the outside may seem out of place, although Hammond has said that what he’s seen from his team this season, despite the final results, gives him confidence that this group is only beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.
“You look at the wins and losses and our record and you’re like ‘man, they haven’t had a good year’, but I think when you factor in everything it’s the first year, the age. of our team, that we were looking for local players, and the population of the city versus places like Jacksonville and New Orleans that have a much larger pool, we’ve done really well, ”said Hammond.
“People and coaches told me that I respect that our business plan to showcase these local players wouldn’t work, that we were going to be destroyed. I was a little nervous at first but I was confident in the talent. that we had in the squad that coached a lot of these guys. Then going out and playing and being in almost every game, I think that was a good feeling. We’re supposed to be here. We can play in this league. , and as the kids get older, the future is going to be bright for us. ”