Sanford’s semi-professional soccer team — featuring players from all over the world — is keeping the sport alive locally, both at the adult and the youth levels
By Billy Liggett
SanLee Futbol Club represents something different and something important to the 25-plus players, coaches and staff who dedicate a good chunk of their lives to it — for nearly all of them, it’s a “side gig” to their 50-hour work weeks or full-time school schedules. There’s an overarching “underdog” quality to the program, from its home games on a small private high school’s pitch to its underfunded (yet remarkably effective) practice facilities in the Kendale area.
As a whole, SanLee Futbol Club is quality, competitive semi-professional soccer.
And according to Tim Blodgett, general manager and owner/founder of the San Lee Soccer Academy, it’s a hidden gem in the Lee County sports scene. When San Lee joined the United Premier Soccer League in 2018, he laid out his goal of not only building a strong adult program, but growing the sport at the youth levels as well.
“Soccer is loved by so many here locally; youth and adults deserve to experience the sport to its fullest,” he said in 2018. “We’re focusing on structure and professionalism here in Sanford … setting up players for the best opportunity to play soccer on the biggest stages, regardless of their backgrounds or social upbringing.”
Tim Blodgett was set to take his high school soccer success in Connecticut and display it at the next level, having accepted a scholarship at the University of Rhode Island.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, changed his plans.
Blodgett enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school in 2002 and would go on to become a staff sergeant, serving four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He found time between deployments to play for the Corps’ soccer team, and after his service, he tried out for — and made — the U.S. National Team’s 7-on-7 squad, which took him around the world playing against some of the best players in the sport.
He found his way to North Carolina via his wife Jen, a Sanford native, and coached soccer at Grace Christian Academy. In 2017, he created San Lee Futbol Club as a way to grow the sport in Sanford and provide an outlet for former high school players who didn’t have the opportunity to play at the collegiate level.
“We had a lot of talented kids, and I thought this would give them an opportunity to keep playing at a high level and possibly one day move on to something bigger and better,” Blodgett says. “We started as part of the Triangle Adult Soccer Association, and we had a lot of success in that league.”
Sponsors for the new team were few, and just about all of the start-up funds came from Blodgett’s own pocket. In addition to uniforms, travel and other expenses, Blodgett began renting an indoor practice facility in the Kendale area and would later rent a few acres near Kendale Plaza for outdoor facilities. Those areas are still used today by not only San Lee FC, but hundreds of teens, pre-teens and young players who take part in Sanford Area Soccer League’s (SASL) Academy program.
Blodgett’s vision got noticed quickly. Just one year after its inception, San Lee FC was picked up by the United Premier Soccer League, a decade-old league that today is home to seven regional conferences and more than 300 teams throughout the country. As a member of the Southeast Conference, Mid-Atlantic Premier Division, San Lee plays against teams from Charlotte, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Columbia (South Carolina), to name a few.
USPL is the nation’s largest and fastest-growing pro development league and is producing players who go on to Major League Soccer clubs or club teams outside of the U.S. Last spring, San Lee finished seventh in its 10-team division (3-4-3 record). This year, they’re off to a slow start at 0-3-1, but for now, the record is far less important than the mission and the future of the program.
“I’m not trying to make a bunch of professional soccer players here,” Blodgett says. “The goal is to try to use soccer as a platform to reach people. For me, it’s a platform to teach them about characteristics they can take with them for the rest of their lives. Hard work. Teamwork. Regardless of your background or your social upbringing.”
Few in Sanford realize the encyclopedia of futbol knowledge they have in Alfredo Encalada.
The assistant coach to San Lee FC head coach Andres Encalada (his son) is the former head coach of the Ecuador National Team, a former player on the Ecuador National Team who played in the America’s Cup in 1983, a former television commentator for the sport and a longtime professor at the Ecuadorian Football Federation. Encalada first played professionally at the age of 12, making for 52-plus years of experience at the highest levels of the sport.
Just two years ago, he was in China helping develop the sport for the Chinese Soccer Federation — a job that came to an abrupt end with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Encalada can be found on the practice fields in Kendale most weeknights, giving one-on-one coaching sessions to San Lee players or showing kids on the 10-under and 8-under Academy teams proper kicking techniques or where to line up in front of the net.
Working alongside his son, Encalada has found peace in Sanford, and he’s thankful for the opportunity to keep teaching the game he loves to a group of young men hungry to learn more.
“The talent level is good here; they’re just lacking a little in the fundamentals,” Encalada says through his translator and player, Giancarlo Soprano. “But that has to do with the country we’re in. The U.S. has so many other sports, versus Ecuador and South America, where soccer is everything. It’s the exit to be successful — the sport every single poor kid dreams of.”
Encalada and his son are the “soul” of the team, Soprano says, and their experience and willingness to teach is invaluable to the players, young and old, on the San Lee squad.
“They say Sanford feels like home now,” he says. “It’s magical, because a lot of players here are from their part of the world and know their culture. It’s become the perfect spot for them.”
Sanford’s become a perfect spot for Soprano, as well. Born in Venezuela, Soprano played for his country’s Junior 15 and Youth 17 national teams and the Primera División, Venezuela’s top flight professional league. He played his way to the United States and was captain of the men’s soccer team at Trinity Lutheran College in Washington and eventually trained with the Seattle Sounders of the MLS.
He left the sport in 2017 to pursue a career in accounting for Deloitte in New York City, and he moved to North Carolina in 2020 to start his own firm, Soprano, Luster & Associates, based in Raleigh. While his career has taken off, Soprano’s love of soccer has never wavered. San Lee’s Hugo Kemppainen approached him over the summer and asked him to come try out for the team in Sanford.
“I hadn’t competed in a while — I left when I was still pretty young — and little by little, it lit this fire in me and reminded me a lot of when I was playing professionally and pursuing this as a career,” says Soprano, now 27. “I was missing something in life, and this was it. I want to get back into it as much as I can.”
Soprano’s not the oldest on the squad — that honor goes to 36-year-old goalkeeper Honorio Serrano — but he’s become a mentor to younger players like Kemppainen, a 21-year-old from Finland who sees San Lee FC not as a return to the sport, but instead as a possible stepping stone to a professional career.
Kemppainen graduated high school in Apex and played for two seasons at Methodist University in Fayetteville. He returned to his native Finland in 2020 and played for a third tier professional team before returning to the U.S. this year.
In Sanford, Kemppainen is getting valuable training with the Encalada father-son duo, and earlier this year, he traveled with them to Ecuador to train.
“Honestly, this is the best coaching I’ve ever had — even after playing in Finland and Ecuador,” he says. “I think these coaches are amazing, and I’ve learned so much from them and from Tim [Blodgett]. They’ve been so confident in me since the first day, and I feel like they want to help me succeed.”
Kemppainen says he wants to take his training and the attention to fundamentals and return to Europe and crack a professional league there.
“Even at the highest levels, some players are missing those fundamentals,” he says. “I’m becoming a better player here, and I’d like to see where it takes me.”
Operations Manager Julie Dutchess has seen all types of players come and go during her time with San Lee FC and before that with the SASL Sabres, the adult league that preceded the current one.
“We’ve had players who work full time — roofers, construction workers, nuclear engineers and mechanical engineers — and this team is like a pastime for them,” says Dutchess. “Then we’ve had college guys who have played for us in their offseasons. Or guys who want to keep playing [professionally]. Guys who play for us then coach our youth programs in their spare time. We’ve had everything here.”
Like the players, Dutchess’ involvement with San Lee FC is the result of a lifelong relationship with the sport. She played, her husband was a goalkeeper in college, and her son just graduated from Averett University in Virginia, where he played four seasons as goalkeeper before returning this fall as an assistant coach.
She’s here because of her love of the game. That, she and the players have in common.
“I mean, they come out here three days a week and they give up their weekends because they love it,” she says. “And I love to see them succeed.”
FOR THE FUTURE
Miguel Aguirre grew up in Sanford and honed his skills in the city’s youth leagues and eventually at Southern Lee High School, where he graduated in 2011.
He’d tried a few pro tryouts here and there after high school, but eventually he dedicated his time to his career — today he’s an engineer at Caterpillar, one of Sanford’s biggest employers — and to his family’s restaurant business.
He rekindled his love of soccer when he learned about San Lee FC. Going pro isn’t his intent — he just loves the game, and one day he would like to coach younger players when he can no longer keep up on the field.
His Sanford roots, his involvement and his passion made him the perfect spokesman when a bond issue went before voters in 2020 for a multi-million-dollar sports complex, which — if it goes according to plan — will house several well-built and well-kept soccer fields for players of all ages. Similar complexes can be found in Wilson, Apex and Holly Springs, towns that have enjoyed economic boosts thanks to visiting teams eating at their restaurants and staying in their hotels. Aguirre spoke on behalf of San Lee FC at city and county meetings, and he and the rest of the soccer community were thrilled when the measure passed last November.
“Our local industries are growing, and more people are coming to Sanford,” Aguirre said. “In order to keep up with the growth, we have to offer something like a sports complex. Some of the cities we’ve played in, we’ve seen nice fields. We’ve seen what it can do [economically].”
Despite the overwhelming vote last year, little has been done to get the ball rolling on the complex, which is planned for Broadway Road near the U.S. 421 Bypass. In July of this year, commissioners approved the purchase of that land, but final contracts and agreements are still pending. It could be a while before the first goal is scored on brand new fields.
It’s a frustrating process for Blodgett, whose SASL and San Lee FC groups were among the few sports organizations in Sanford to fund the campaign to pass the bond last November. SASL teams currently play on fields in the Deep River area and at the Lions Club Fairgrounds, and San Lee FC’s home games are played at Grace Christian Academy on fields far below the quality of others in their league.
“We’re grateful to the Lions Club and everyone who supports youth soccer, but we do run into scheduling issues all the time,” Blodgett says. “I’ve tried so hard and our goal all along has been to unify soccer here and not make it about one demographic over another — there’s a huge demand for soccer here, and I’m having a hard time understanding why there’s not more emphasis given to this sport.”
Blodgett points to high costs for renting fields run by Lee County Schools (costs other sports aren’t asked to pay) and to local government dragging its feet on the complex — in addition to several other negative experiences with local officials — that have led him to this point. He asks [for this story] that a big deal isn’t made of it, but his frustration is evident. He’s put a lot of time (and money) into soccer, and he’s yet to see the support he’s hoped for.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives. San Lee FC is a group of hard-working young men who share his love of the game. The Academy levels (from ages 8 and up) are experiencing full rosters, and several of those teams are often absolutely drilling teams from other towns who boast higher budgets and better facilities.
Soccer in Sanford will get there, Blodgett believes. It just takes time.
“I love the game. I’m passionate about the game. I love interacting with the kids,” he says. “I think the easy part is coaching. And being out there. Truthfully, I hate the business side of it, just because I’m very passionate about it. I love seeing the kids compete, and I love seeing them develop. I love seeing them enjoying it. And that’s the biggest thing — as long as the kids are enjoying it.”
YES! YES! YES!