Fueled By Area Successes, Soccer Growth Has Been Steady

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Central Illinois has long been a hotbed for high school basketball and football. But in the last decade or so another sport has been steadily climbing the ranks of popularity among area athletes: Soccer.

Participation in the sport, which older sports purists still don’t follow like they do football, basketball and baseball, has grown considerably, with thousands of school-age children playing in various leagues in the region.

And with the success of some high school teams, including perennial state fi nalist Peoria Notre Dame, and the national att ention enjoyed by college soccer powerhouse Bradley University, more people are paying att ention to the sport that many countries refer to as futbol.

“I think seeing our success and that of other schools is a factor, but there are other reasons soccer is growing. For one thing, it is just a great sport for young athletes, boys and girls, and anybody can play it at the youth level,” said Mike Bare, the head coach at Peoria Notre Dame who already has two state championships and four consecutive state fi nals teams in his five years at the Irish helm. He is only 31 years old.

“Soccer gets the kids off the couch and away from the video games and gets them involved in something that keeps them moving. Some become very good at the game and stick to it into high school. Some get to play beyond that, even,” he said.

Another positive about the game that calls for continuous movement and running is that it is great for fi tness, Bare said. “Body awareness is developed at a young age and these kids learn coordination. That makes good athletes,” he said.

Bare himself was a four-year varsity player at Peoria Notre Dame under coach Danny Driscoll, who now is one of the team’s assistant coaches. That, Bare said, enables him to continue to employ the Notre Dame system he learned from. “It’s a system that works, obviously. It develops into a belief system for our kids, a belief that they can be the best in the state every year,” he said.

That kind of belief and winning att itude is what college coaches look for when recruiting, said Jim DeRose, head soccer coach at Bradley University who has taken that program to new heights nationally, including to the fi nal eight in the nation a few years ago. The Bradley team has been nationally ranked eight seasons.

DeRose said he can recruit nationally and looks for players who grew up in strong youth soccer programs. That includes the Peoria region, he added.

“Soccer in Peoria has always been kind of a niche thing. I’ve never been in an area that has as many teams and leagues at the grassroots level for such young ages. It’s great,” he said.

DeRose said he can’t say for sure that the Bradley success has heightened awareness of soccer in central Illinois, but hopes it has helped. “I hope there has been some pyramid effect. We’re giving kids the opportunity to see the game played at a higher level, seeing some of the best college players in the country. Some of these players may be future professional players,” he said.

He added that he believes it important that the university help the youth leagues develop future players, as well. That’s why he and his team will conduct free clinics and camps during the summer for kids ages 5 to 18 through the Central Illinois Soccer Academy. “That helps us give back to our community while boosting our brand,” he said.

Another big reason for the continuing growth in soccer popularity is generational, said Dan Daly, president of FC Peoria, the largest youth soccer organization in the region. By that he means kids who grew up playing soccer in the 1980s and 1990s are now the parents of youth soccer players.

“Parents of the kids playing today understand the game bett er because they grew up playing it, even before it gained any real popularity. They now are gett ing their kids involved and making them realize how fun and competitive it is,” Daly said.

He fi rst became involved in soccer in 1980 when a co-worker at that time became coach of a grade school soccer team and asked Daly to assist him. “My first question to him was, ‘how many kids are on the field at once?’ That tells you right there how much I knew about soccer, or didn’t know rather. But I learned the game and really enjoy it,” he said.

Daly eventually began coaching himself, but quit doing that so he could lead the FC Peoria organization and increase awareness of the program and get even more involvement in youth soccer. The organization hosts tournaments during the year, including the Mid America Shootout scheduled for the last weekend of September at FC Peoria’s home complex, the Green Chevrolet Complex in Mossville. “We push the fact that boys and girls both can play, that soccer is prett y easy to organize and isn’t very costly. I think we probably have more girls playing in our league now than boys,” he said.

Many do eventually play for their junior high teams and want to play for their high schools. “The success of a lot of the high schools around here, both for boys and girls, has raised awareness of soccer, as well. We’ve seen growth in summer camps, in the parochial leagues. It is becoming the sport of choice for a lot of athletes,” Daly said.

FC Peoria is now forming a new program that will get underway this fall, he added. It’s called TOPSoccer and it is specifi cally for children with disabilities or special needs. Registration started in August.

“We are the only place in the region that will offer this opportunity and we think it’s important,” said Daly, who noted the idea for TOPSoccer was proposed to FC Peoria by a young couple new to the area that has a child with special needs. The program’s goal is to “enable young athletes with disabilities to have fun through soccer as well as develop their physical fitness, skills, courage and self-esteem,” the FC Peoria website states.

TOPSoccer will be free and is for kids ages 5 to 12. It will be an indoor program, Daly said. For more information on it visit fcpeoria.org.

Peoria Notre Dame’s coach Bare said the skills and fitness children are learning through the various youth leagues are important once they reach the high school level. Fitness is a mainstay of his own teams, he said at the end of a recent practice when his players jogged with intermittent sprints of up to 10 or 15 seconds. That exercise went on the last 12 minutes of that practice with the aim and gett ing players used to the type of movement in a typical soccer game.

“We’re very big on fi tness here and it really is a big part of our success. We know that one way to beat a team that may be bett er than us is to run them into the ground. We do that by being more physically fit than the other team. That kind of fitness is learned early and it carries forward,” he said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).