Orlando's newest professional soccer team officially inked its first new player on Tuesday at The Broken Cauldron Taproom in downtown Orlando. Just a few blocks from Orlando City Stadium, SeaWolves General Manager Chris Kokalis signed former Orlando City midfielder Lewis Neal to an MASL player contract.
The signing means Neal will be back playing soccer professionally in Orlando once again. Neal played for Orlando City in 2011, scoring the club's first ever goal on February 19, 2011, in a friendly against the Philadelphia Union. After a stint from 2012 - 2014 with DC United, Neal returned to Orlando to play with USL Orlando City (2014), MLS Orlando City (2015) and USL OCB (2016). The 36-year-old Midfielder expressed excitement about this new chapter of his career, which was attended by multiple media outlets, dozens of fans, and Neal's sister, as well as his wife and children. Also in attendance was Neal's former Orlando City teammate, Luke Boden, whom the SeaWolves intend to sign once the USL season is over and Boden's contract with the Tampa Bay Rowdies has ended.
Professional Soccer Academy
Boden and Neal are also actively making plans for the day that they hang up their playing cleats for good, and it sounds like both of them are going to be involved in the Central Florida soccer scene for many years to come. Boden and Neal are the primary coaches with Professional Soccer Academy (PSA). Located in New Smyrna Beach at the New Smyrna Beach Sports Complex, PSA helps develop young players under the watchful eye of veteran professional players. Both men are eager to start passing along their experience and the technical, as well as the leadership and life lessons, they have gained from playing the game.
"Being a professional footballer is about so much more than just being good at the game," Boden said. "There's the mental discipline and willingness to work on your game as well." Boden has played professionally for 14 seasons, making him a rarity in an age where most professional sports careers are over in under five seasons. "I've seen so many talented young players get washed right out of the game because they don't have the discipline to continue to succeed," he says.
But the Academy is about more than just learning the game. Their training sessions are designed in the morning, and students enrolled at PSA during the school year also attend their regular school for academic studies in the afternoon. PSA would like to grow into a facility similar to the one Boden attended in his childhood, where training and classrooms are all available on the same campus so that they can further emphasize the importance of academics as well as athletics. "Education is so important, because the chance to earn a living as a player is so slim," Boden said.
And Lewis Neal agrees. "When we got started, we were a bit worried that we would see the grades of our enrolled kids suffer as they started to attend the daily training," he said. "But every parent that has talked to us about their children's academics has said the opposite has happened. They tell us the grades are getting better once they started in the Academy." Neal said that most of the students at PSA are between the ages of 9 - 14.
Many studies cite the pre-teen and early teen years as a critical span in physical, emotional, and mental development. And more and more studies are pointing to the importance of physical activity in helping the brain function at its best. So it should be no surprise that students enrolled in a controlled environment where the training teaches important discipline and fundamentals of the game, as well as having a fun atmosphere, also do better in the classroom.
"It's very important that we keep the atmosphere fun for the kids," Neal said. "You have to make it a challenge so they will continue growing their skills and developing as players, but if you don't make it any fun, you'll just turn the kids off and they won't want to continue."
Leadership Key to Neal's Signing
SeaWolves GM Kokalis said that Neal's leadership was a key factor in signing him. "Now [Neal] has a chance to help establish the SeaWolves among the ranks of the thriving Central Flrida soccer community. Additionally, his experience and leadership will be invaluable in the locker room, even though he is new to the arena game." Both Kokalis and Neal talked about culture and the importance of building the right culture to help cement a strong and successful team. Neal now gets a chance to extend his current 17-year playing career in this latest challenge. With a huge grin, he said, "I'm really looking forward to it."