Written by Matthew Auerbach
The Palm Beach Pumas may well be the best-kept secret on the Wellington sports scene.
The Pumas are one of 59 teams belonging to the Premier Development League of the United Soccer League, which is widely considered the highest level of amateur soccer in the country. To put it in baseball terms, the USL is to professional soccer what Triple A is to Major League Baseball — except nobody gets paid.
The PDL is an “under 23” league. All but eight out of the 26 players on each team are 23 years of age or younger. Each squad is permitted to have eight players 23 or older who work with the younger players in a teammate/mentor role.
The Pumas play in the southeast division of the league’s Southern Conference, which also includes teams based in Bradenton, Orlando, Winter Park and Cocoa. The Pumas have been in existence since 2000. They are currently sponsored by and play all their home games at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington.
Bobby Lennon is the executive director of the Pumas. He’s also been their head coach since they came into the league. Lennon has 11 years of playing pro soccer under his belt. He also helped found the Richmond Kickers, one of the top teams in the USL. Lennon believes the value of the PDL works on many levels.
“There are players from all over the country and all over the world on the Pumas,” he said. “For example, we’ve got two players Serbia, two from England, one from Czechoslovakia and one from Brazil. Everyone on the team is exposed to different cultures and different ideas. But they’re all teammates and they’ve all bonded.”
In that way, soccer becomes more than just a sport. “It’s an invaluable education, and I’m not even talking about soccer. As far as the game is concerned, we use it as a vehicle to help kids grow,” Lennon said. “We measure our success by how many kids go to college and come back to mentor. We honestly believe that our program teaches players how to get through life in a positive, constructive way.”
One of those players is 19-year-old Adam Dupere. Dupere, a Puma for the last three seasons, is a graduate of Wellington High School. He’ll be attending Liberty University in Virginia in the fall.
“I’ll definitely be playing soccer at Liberty,” Dupere said. “But that’s just a tribute to Coach Lennon and the entire Pumas organization. The competition is the best around. I left the Wellington High team in my senior year and joined the Pumas because of the level of competition. I’ve made friendships here that I know will last for my entire life. Coach Lennon has also taught us that organization and intensity are the keys to winning. It has been a tremendous experience.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the Pumas. The Palm Beach Polo Club originally sponsored the team, but that deal went sour right before their initial season in 2000.
“The Palm Beach Polo Club was the reason we decided to be based in Wellington,” Lennon said. “But a few days before our first game, the owner raised our rental fee from $1,000 to $6,000 a night. We just couldn’t meet that price.”
For several years, the Pumas became a wandering soccer team, playing at Palm Beach Community College, Forest Hill High School and William T. Dwyer High School. But now they’ve come home to Wellington.
Since landing at the International Polo Club — with its new state-of-the-art stadium designed for top-level polo play — things have been looking up. “They stepped in and saved us,” Lennon said. “In my mind, there’s no doubt that we now play in the best stadium in the country.”
Lennon doesn’t downplay the importance of the venue. “Look, we want soccer to catch on here in Wellington, and I know that in the public’s mind, you are where you play,” he said. “So I’m very happy to be based at the International Polo Club. People love coming here, and our fan base seems to increase with every game.”
Lennon is especially proud of the various year-round programs the Pumas sponsor.
“Our College Prep Program, which operates out of Palm Beach Community College, has advanced six players to NCAA Division 1 programs,” he said. “We stress academic achievement while making sure the guys play in at least two games a week.”
But high schoolers are not the only ones benefiting.
“We’re also continuing to develop our Youth Program for players under six to 12 years of age. For us, it’s all about development, advancement and promotion. No matter what level of soccer we’re talking about, to me it’s always about good coaching, good players around you and good competition.”
Lennon’s formula has definitely produced positive results. Under his tutelage, 28 players have advanced to Major League Soccer and more than 100 have played soccer in college.
Currently, there are four former Pumas playing pro soccer, including Corey Gibbs, who was set to start for the U.S. national team in the World Cup but was sidelined due to injury.