With Statesboro, Georgia's population being just upwards of 30,000, Darin Van Tassell says that his South Georgia Tormenta operates in the smallest market in North America professional soccer.
Tormenta — the word for ‘storm’ in Spanish — won the 2022 USL League One title last fall, and its women’s team won the inaugural USL W League title that summer. The men’s team beat two USL Championship teams in last season's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play and this season advanced to a third-round clash with MLS's Charlotte FC on April 25 thanks to beating the USL Championship's RGV Toros.
Statesboro is mostly a college town, home to Georgia Southern University, where Van Tassell played and coached ... baseball.
What explains him presiding over a successful, professional soccer team that is well-financed, has attracted players such as Kazaiah Sterling, a former England youth international, and has sent almost 60 players to sign professional contracts from its USL League Two team, Tormenta FC 2?
We’ll let him tell the story.
SOCCER AMERICA: Rumor has it the team started because parents of players who played at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro wanted to keep on watching their kids play. What’s the story there?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: Yeah, it's a great story. I'm one of those parents. I'm a baseball guy — played and coached here at Georgia Southern University, coached here. I was the competition director for the international baseball federation for a couple decades.
Over the course of doing that work, I was the head coach in the Atlanta Olympics for the Nicaraguan national team, then I helped run the Olympics in Athens and Beijing. Quite frankly, all the Olympics are is that all the international federations get together and hold their world championships at the same place at the same time.
In any case, it became very clear to me that soccer wasn't just the biggest sport in the world but the biggest thing in the world. And so, as my wife and I were being introduced to the game by our son, who was a very elite youth soccer player and went on to play in college, we kind of just had our own soccer family.
There was a group of us who said, 'We're not ready for this to end.' All of our guys were signing college scholarships.
So we started looking at the USL and those properties that were there. League 2, which in those days was the PDL — we said, 'Let's do it. Let's get a franchise and we'll start it in the summer.'
My wife and I, who are co-owners of this thing, got a whole bunch of our youth soccer parents to join in at about 5% and there we went. But that's how it started, with our kids handing the sport up to us.
Tormenta FC's local products are complemented by imported talent, including Kazaiah Sterling, who arrived last year at age 23 from England.
SA: Starting a pro soccer team is very expensive, especially for youth soccer parents. Were you or are you expecting to make money from this?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: It's a huge financial investment. And by the way, having a place for your kids to come back and play during the summers is a terrible idea, from a business point of view.
But it's very clear to me that if you're going to get into pro sports at any level, then you can't just have a team. You need a stadium. Teams lose money — stadiums don't. And the real estate around it certainly doesn't.
That's not really a new insight. But real estate is the business model and how you make it work. It's precisely what we're doing here — building a stadium, and we own and control about 230 acres around that, which is all adjacent to Georgia Southern University.
We're done with phase one — we're happy with the pitch and how it's playing. There'll be retail in the stadium and people living in the stadium, office space and a music venue as well.
If you're going to get into this business, especially for a market of our size, you have to build a stadium that lives and breathes in a neighborhood. That's what's going to protect the team.
SA: What’s the origin for the name, South Georgia Tormenta?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: Tormenta is the Spanish word for storm. In our crest, the animal is an ibis. The ibis is known for its bravery — it's the last animal to retreat from a storm and the first one to reappear once the storm passes. The original youth academy here was called Storm Soccer Academy — and so we did a poll and Tormenta is what the fans chose, even if they didn't really make that connection at the time.
SA: Talk about what enabled your team to win a competitive USL League 1 title? I can’t imagine you were able to attract the most talented players to Statesboro, Georgia?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: Well, maybe. The MVP of our team [former England youth international Kazaiah Sterling], he was a Tottenham Hotspur academy player who played with Harry Kane and Dele Alli. That was a big signing for us.
SA: How did you find him and convince him to come to Statesboro, Georgia?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: Hard work. Great players can come from anywhere and we convinced him that this is a setting that he could thrive in. A lot of our great players come up through our USL League II program. We've had almost 60 players sign pro contracts from there. We've been quite successful in moving them on, and having this be the place they play and develop.
SA: Describe your club culture and how that has contributed to your success?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: It's a tight community but also a tight club. The owners are very present, and we know a lot about our players. We eat together every day and know everybody's needs. We're not hoverers, but we are pretty present. That's kind of how we do it.
The league is very competitive, and I think that shows in the Open Cup performances. We've gotten a lot of success against [USL] Championship teams and even some MLS teams. We've won our last three games against Championship teams and played well in those.
We got hot at the right time — but when you win the whole title, and you win it on ESPN with the viewership we had that night, and you win it on a banger in the 82nd minute — there's some magic that happens.
That came on the heels of our women's side winning this summer. From my understanding, it's the first time in U.S. Soccer history where one club won the title in both the men and women's side. The footnote is that that's because a lot of teams don't have men and women's programs, but hey, we'll take it.
But it was a thrill. The men would watch the women play, then the women would watch the men play. And our whole academy was there, in addition to our fans. We've worked hard at nurturing that, and maybe that's because we came of age as youth soccer parents ourselves.
SA: What kind of players do you get and where are they hoping to go? Do players make enough to support themselves or is there a lot of turnover?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: The new collective bargaining agreement that's in place ensures some minimum contracts of cash. We provide housing, meals and insurance. Guys are fine in that regard — they don't have many bills to pay. That's important to us. We have some guys who have been here five years. I think their aspirations are to play here, be successful and move onto the Championship or the MLS. We've had some folks who've moved on to countries outside of the U.S.
We're clear on what our position — when we sign somebody I hope they can be here for as long as we can have them. But I'm not lost at what their aspirations are — and our goal is to make them better. And that's the same with our coaches.
SA: Talk about the recent development of launching a USL W-League team?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: It was a big thrill, especially when you win the first one ever, that's pretty cool! But after that final, we had five of our women sign pro contracts in Europe, by the way. So we're doing something right, in terms of creating that nurturing environment.
I think the future of our women in this country is way past due, when you think of how many college players we have. But we're getting there, and I give the USL a lot of credit for the W league and the Super League that's coming. I think those are earthquakes that are coming in U.S. soccer.
SA: Talk about your Open Cup run last year which ended in the round of 32 against Inter Miami, and the importance of tournaments of its kind for teams like Tormenta?
DARIN VAN TASSELL: It's a big honor to play in these. We don't take them lightly. They matter, for us — it matters because of the street cred that comes with it. Those games are legitimizers. Last year, when we got hot and won the final, the players will still tell you that the best game they played was against Inter Miami in the Open Cup. We outshot them 12-4 but we lost 3-1.
It's a massive challenge on our hands against Charlotte — a team with many different resources than us and with players who have already found a ceiling, while our guys' ceiling is still to come.
Many of our league members have competed and fared well against MLS sides — we're hopeful to find a little magic ourselves. We're honored to be a part of it and are going to give it our best to win.
Photos: Tormenta FC