A million-dollar, winner-take-all prize will be on the line next summer in a new 7-on-7 soccer tournament to be held in North Carolina.
The tournament -- known simply as The Soccer Tournament -- will be run by TBT Enterprises, the group that founded The Basketball Tournament roughly a decade ago. That event started as a 32-team, 5-on-5 tournament with a winner-take-all $500,000 prize and has since grown to 64-team, $1 million event that attracted top talent from all over the world and has been broadcast by ESPN.
Now the group is applying the same concept to soccer.
Among those involved is former United States international Clint Dempsey, who is serving as an adviser and will manage Team Dempsey, one of the two teams already set to participate.
"I came from a pickup soccer culture, from a culture of taking people on," said Dempsey, the United States' joint leading career scorer, "and this is something that promotes that and hopefully opens the door for some people to take their game to the next level and chase their dreams."
The tournament will employ a format similar to the World Cup: 32 teams in eight groups of four with three group matches per team, then a 16-team, single-elimination knockout phase. The maximum field dimensions will be 65 yards in length and 45 yards in width, and matches will be played with 18.5-by-6.5-foot goals. The event will take place over a four-day period in June 2023 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
"They wanted something that was going to be exciting, something that was going to be a lot of action that was going to be a lot of goals, exciting for people to watch," Dempsey said. "By being closer to goal, it allows for more opportunities to get a shot. I like that aspect of it. You still have to defend, and you've still got to work on being tight with your touches."
There won't be draws, either. Similar to the "Elam Ending" employed in TBT, each game will finish with what TST calls "Target Score Time." After two 20-minute halves are played, an untimed period begins to determine a winner by reaching a target score, which will be one goal more than whatever the team with the lead had at the end of regulation.
For example, if one team is leading 7-3 after 40 minutes, the target score would be eight. The clock gets turned off, and whichever team reaches eight first is the winner. If after five minutes in the untimed period no team has scored, one player from each team exits the field, and that process would continue -- 7v7 to 6v6 to 5v5, etc. -- every five minutes until the winning goal is scored.
In test games using the proposed rules in New York City, goals have been scored roughly every four minutes.
"The model for TBT was largely based off of the FA Cup, and this idea of being open to all with very little barrier to entry giving everybody the opportunity to play up onto a stage with massive teams," founder Jon Mugar said. "That, at its core, is what TBT is and what we wanted to bring to basketball in America."
TBT's founders had discussed applying their blueprint to sports other than basketball, but it wasn't until Mugar received a LinkedIn message from former University of Virginia soccer player Mike Volk last year asking whether he had ever thought about using the model for soccer that things started to progress.
Mugar, a former college baseball player, is admittedly not as a familiar with soccer as basketball, but in conversations with Volk, who won a national championship at Virginia and played one season in Major League Soccer, and his partners -- former teammate Henry Tembon and longtime MLS player Alecko Eskandarian -- he was encouraged by the potential. Eskandarian is the senior director for player relations and player development for Major League Soccer, and NBA star Chris Paul is also among the ownership group.
It was clear from the start that an 11-on-11 format wouldn't work. Everyone agreed that for this type of tournament to be feasible, it needed to be shorter, smaller-sided games. They soon settled on 7-on-7, a format that is common in training and recreationally.
Tournament buy-in fees will range from $10,000 to $20,000, depending on when applications are received. Mugar has had some cursory conversations about what type of teams might try to enter but isn't exactly sure what to expect. Based on their experience with basketball, he is anticipating the need to review a list of applicants beyond the 32 slots and having to select a field based on varying criteria.
"Ultimately, we want to pick the field that people most want to see," Mugar said. "As we look at all the teams that will apply for a 32-team, million-dollar tournament, we're definitely going to prioritize those that represent a wide cross-section of the soccer world. And I think that with basketball, we've seen that it's mainly a product for USA players, but with soccer we anticipate a worldwide player pool."
Dempsey said he plans to hold tryouts for his team across multiple states and wants to put together a squad of younger players to give them an opportunity to showcase their ability. He initially told ESPN he just wanted to manage, but didn't dismiss the possibility he could play.
"It might be a situation where I'll have the cleats by me to jump in if there is an opportunity, you know what I'm saying?" Dempsey said.
The Basketball Tournament has regularly featured former NBA players and assembled alumni teams from some of college basketball's top programs.
In addition to Team Dempsey, the other team committed to play is Hashtag United, an English professional team with a strong online presence.
"We've experienced a lot in our 7-year history, including FA Cup runs and league championships, but nothing like TST," Hashtag United founder Spencer Owen said via a statement. "We firmly believe playing in this tournament means being at the front and center of an exciting evolution in football/soccer that pushes boundaries in an attempt to maximize entertainment for both the player and the viewer."
TST Enterprises has not begun a formal process to find a broadcast partner, but that is expected to take place once it has a better sense of the caliber of the teams and individuals who will be taking part.