COLUMBIA — The Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, awarded annually to the winners of the MLS Cup, sat under a shelter at Pride Park north of Columbia during a Sporting Columbia Soccer Club clinic Tuesday.
Stephanie Daughterty, the club’s registrar, encouraged a teenager on her son’s soccer team to pose in front of the trophy for a picture.
The teenager gave a sour look and refused.
“I don’t follow MLS,” he said dismissively.
The feeling is common around MLS, which historically has struggled against other sports in the U.S. for popularity and other soccer leagues around the world for quality competition. But at Tuesday’s clinic, the quip was more exception than the rule. A vast majority of kids (and quite a few parents) donning Sporting Kansas City attire gleefully had their picture taken in front of the trophy.
Credit the Sporting Club Network for bringing Sporting’s influence to Columbia and the rest of the Midwest.
The network, a branch of the organization that owns Sporting Kansas City, is the force responsible for rebranding Columbia Soccer Club as Sporting Columbia Soccer Club in 2013. It is also behind bringing the trophy and rising Sporting star Soony Saad to Pride Park on Tuesday.
Since 2011, nine youth soccer clubs, spanning from Minneapolis to Omaha to Nashville, have been renamed with the “Sporting” label and introduced to the club’s network for recruiting and marketing purposes.
“MLS tasks every club with having a homegrown territory,” said Liam O’Connell, a manager of the Sporting Club Network, who was present at the clinic on Tuesday. “Ours is considerably large, so our solution to scouting the talent of kids in the Midwest for our academy is by creating these satellite academy teams.”
A local pro soccer team having a considerable impact on young players is a relatively new trend. Saad, who is only 21, said he had no local influences while growing up in Michigan. He said the growing presence of MLS could be huge for this generation of young players.
“When you have kids that are in the system that are going to these games saying, ‘Hey, I want to be on that field one day,’ then the level of American soccer will skyrocket,” Saad said.
O’Connell, who played as a youth in Massachusetts, said that the system was a different way of introducing the game to new players.
“In the past, a big part of development was practicing as much as possible and playing competitive soccer, and so often you saw kids getting burnt out from that lifestyle,” O’Connell said. “We want to have kids develop a love of the game so that fuels their development.”
O’Connell envisions the concept of a “clear path,” in which a young player sees their favorite team playing at the stadium, then joins the club as a youth, then eventually becomes a player for the team he idolizes. The important segment is the middle — the club giving the player an opportunity to play within its own system.
This is the goal for the Sporting Club Network: to establish a connection with soccer players around the Midwest, with the result of eventually having the most talented players grow up and play for their favorite club as professionals.
Bonnie Hammond, a Columbia native, has had four children play for Sporting Columbia Soccer Club. She said since Sporting has rebranded the club, the results have been nothing but positive. Being a part of the network has connected Sporting Columbia Soccer Club with other Sporting clubs around the Midwest, Hammond said, offering better competition for her kids and more interaction with other communities. Hammond said the connection has also provided the club more experienced coaching.
In addition to those benefits, Sporting runs two clinics a year at each affiliated club just like the one that happened at Pride Park on Tuesday.
As the clinic wrapped up, O’Connell, who ran the event, gathered the kids who participated for a question-and-answer session with Saad. The final question for Saad, from a youth player no older than 14, was about the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy that sat behind him.
“When you won that trophy, did you run around yelling and screaming?”
“It was incredible,” Saad answered, noting that winning the trophy was significant for not just the team, but the city and the entire fanbase.
O’Connell, standing next to Saad, piped up.
“That’s why we brought it with us,” he said.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.