Unlike most who returned home over the holidays, Kyle Curinga will be sticking around.
Born and raised in Clearwater, Curinga has only dreamed of playing soccer since he was three years old. He achieved that dream when he latched on with GBK Kokkola in Finland’s third tier one year removed from high school and finds himself home again four years later after signing with the Tampa Bay Rowdies ahead of the 2018 United Soccer League season.
“It’s a different feeling,” Curinga said the day his signing was announced. “I have been away for the last four years. To finally be coming home, it’s a relief in a sense, but there’s so much to do to get gearing up for the season. So I gotta quickly change my focus from being home with family to gearing up for the season.”
There’s no denying Curinga is a Pinellas product through and through, having played for Largo United Soccer Club and Strictly Soccer in St. Petersburg as a kid. He is even well acquainted with another Rowdies player who also hails from the area — Alex Morrell.
“Alex and I have played together since we were 11 or 12 years old on up,” he said. “We played at Largo United together and then we played at Strictly Soccer. Him and I have been very good friends for quite a few years now.”
Local youth soccer staple Jim Harte played a critical role in Curinga’s development as his coach at Clearwater Central Catholic High School and a mentor after graduation. Curinga recorded 33 goals and 31 assists for CCC during his senior season in 2012 — the same year that the Rowdies claimed the Soccer Bowl.
From high school, Curinga moved on to Florida Atlantic University. After only appearing 8 times for the Owls, though, he made the bold decision to put off school and pursue soccer full-time in Europe.
“It was a very, very tough decision in my life; probably the most important decision I’ve ever made to this point. I had to sit down with my parents and basically beg them, with the help of some people who were pushing me to really try to make it somewhere. Jim Harte was extremely instrumental in me making the jump from college to Finland. I went to school for one year and felt that I just wanted to do 100 percent school or 100 percent soccer. There’s no age limit on school, so I picked soccer.”
With an American coach in place at GBK Kokkola and two Americans already on the roster, Curinga found a comfortable spot to make his transition to life as a professional. Kokkola’s coach asked Curinga to make a move on the field as well, shifting him to right back for the first time in his career.
Curinga took the change in stride, earning 50 appearances on Kokkola’s back line before moving up to the second division with FF Jaro for another 21 appearances in 2016.
“My whole life I’ve been a center midfielder or an attacking midfielder. I think that’s why I’m fortunate enough to be technical,” he said. “As we can see in today’s game, everyone has to be good with their feet. I think that’s helped me a lot. I just kinda embraced my inner Marcelo and tried to do my best impression and it ended up sticking.
“Finland was a professional environment with very smart players. It took a little to get used to, but I think my three years there I proved that I’m ready for it and I can play at certain levels. It was really an amazing experience.”
The reality of being a foreign-born player finally caught up Curinga as he hit his ceiling after three years of success. His options were limited as only three players from outside of the E.U. permitted on a top tier team’s roster in Finland, so he decided it was time to come stateside.
For a brief moment last year, Curinga got a glimpse of what it would be like to don the green and gold at Al Lang. He joined the team as a trialist and even appeared in the exhibition against VFL Wolfsburg, but no deal came of the trial. Things worked out well for him as he signed with the Real Monarchs, last year’s USL regular season champions.
“It was really cool being here,” he said of last year’s trial. “For whatever reason things just didn’t come to fruition and we decided to go separate ways and now we’re coming back. It’s all come full circle.”
A lot has changed for both the Rowdies and the USL while Curinga was abroad. When he began his stint at Kokkola in 2014, Rowdies owner Bill Edwards had only just purchased the team and the USL was only a 14-team league. Four years later, Edwards’ investment has rejuvenated both the Rowdies and Al Lang Stadium while the USL has more than doubled in size.
“It’s incredible what the USL has done in the last few years,” he said. “I remember a teammate last year said to me, ‘we’ll look back on this in ten years and realize we were the foundation of the USL.’ It’s just like all the guys who were initially in MLS. MLS had to take its time to gain steam and grow and I think that’s exactly what the USL is going through right now.”
As an avid young fan of the game, Curinga was often at Rowdies matches. The team launched at George M. Steinbrenner field when he was a sophomore in high school. Curinga was in the stands for that inaugural season and then followed the team when it moved to Al Lang the next year.
Now he’s in the position of being the one local kids look to on the field.
“You look at the roster already and it’s all quality players and leaders. You have to think that there’s only good things to come based on what’s already in place. I’m really looking forward to being able to work with some of the guys on the team.”