Youth Soccer Organizations Offer Emphasis On Development
By SHANE STARK
The drive from Nacogdoches to Dallas takes more than three hours and spans almost 300 miles.
Clint Dempsey became familiar with the trip as a child. The Nacogdoches native made it multiple times a week to play for the Dallas Texans, one of the state's top club teams for soccer.
These days, Dempsey plays professionally for Fulham in the English Premier League -- perhaps the most prestigious league in the world -- and is a member of the U.S. National Team. This season, he's scored a career-high 22 goals and finished fourth in the voting for England's Footballer of the Year.
As it turned out, the hours-long trips from the Pineywoods to the Metroplex served as stepping stones for his ultimate destination -- something other East Texans hope to reach someday too.
In a nation that places a higher emphasis on other sports such as football, baseball and basketball, a dedicated percentage put soccer above everything else.
Above high school athletics.
Above, in some cases, academics.
And above, in many cases, financial freedom.
That's especially true in metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, where fees can run in the thousands and additional expenses such as travel and hotel accommodations can pile up.
But many believe the expenses are necessary.
Those involved with club soccer are often reminded of players such as Dempsey, who grew up in a trailer park and is now a 29-year-old international star. Another example is Mia Hamm, who via the club philosophy became one of the most decorated U.S. women's players of all time.
In an interview with socceramerica.com earlier this month, the now-retired Hamm talked about her youth experience.
"Development over winning was something I felt was there," she said. "I think as kids, and especially the players who go on to play at the highest level, they're naturally competitive.
"At a certain age, that reinforcement is important, but at a young age it's about development and making sure that the kids really enjoy the environment they're in so they want to come back and continue to learn and listen."
The key word is "development" -- not "winning."
There are an estimated 4,000 participants in Tyler youth soccer, which includes the recreational and more serious club leagues.
"Club soccer is basically more intense than rec soccer," said Bryan Brady, president of the Tyler Azzurri club.
Azzurri and other clubs such as the East Texas Spirit have been developing players for years, but many others are lured to the more elite clubs in the Dallas area.
Here are East Texans who have devoted much of their lives to club soccer.
The Hernandez Family
Jimmie Hernandez might never forget a story that involved club soccer. Her oldest son was a sixth-grader with an extreme devotion to the family tradition.
"He convinced us to let him move to Dallas and stay with a family one semester," Mrs. Hernandez recalled. "He would come home sometimes and we would put him on a bus, and you could barely see his little head over the bus window."
Her son's name, Daniel Hernandez, is well known around here. The 35-year-old is a player and assistant coach for FC Dallas of Major League Soccer (MLS) after starring at John Tyler High School and graduating to an All-America career at SMU.
Daniel's younger brother, Nico, played for SMU in the 1990s as well. Both also played kicker -- Nico backed up Daniel -- for SMU's football team.
Club soccer was the ticket for both.
"I started at age 10 and pretty much made my decision that I was going to have to leave basketball and baseball alone," said Nico, who is now the owner of Tyler's 220 Lounge nightclub. "We were having to go back and forth because at the time there were no Tyler club teams."
Some weeks Mrs. Hernandez and her husband, Wiley College soccer coach Demetrio Hernandez, would make upward of five trips to Dallas for their boys' practices and games. When their practices were on different days in a week, it meant double the travel.
"Sometimes I would be so tired I would get the kids in the van knowing the backseat laid out into a bed," Mrs. Hernandez said. "If I could get to Dallas, I would let the kids practice and I would get to lie down."
In the end, the long commutes and hours paid off -- evidenced, in part, by Nico and Daniel receiving college scholarships. The youngest Hernandez, daughter Sara, played club soccer in Tyler and is a soccer coach at Robert E. Lee High School.
"Well, I think SMU was $36,000 a
semester, so a full scholarship was definitely nice," Nico said. "There was a lot of recognition with club. The major colleges don't really recruit in the high schools. They recruit only the club teams."
Daniel should know.
"I was able to compete against the best players and teams, so it forced me to be better," Daniel said. "To be the best, you have to complete against the best in practice and games. Because of the exposure club soccer gets, it also helped me to be seen by college coaches, which eventually led me to get a full scholarship, and national team coaches through (the Olympic Development Program), which gave me the opportunity to play with all the youth national teams."
Daniel's development and exposure led to his second-round selection in the 1998 MLS draft by the Los Angeles Galaxy. He's played on many MLS teams and also in Mexico. He signed with FC Dallas in 2009 and helped the team reach the MLS Cup in 2010.
In the meantime, Nico started for SMU as a freshman in 1997 and was well on his way to turning pro, too. A tragic automobile accident the following year, however, left him paralyzed from the chest down.
"If he hadn't had a wreck, he would probably be playing professionally also," Mrs. Hernandez said. "Coaches said he was as good as Daniel, so that's what we thought would happen with him."
On Wednesday, the Hernandez family made another trip to the Dallas area -- to watch FC Dallas' game against Real Salt Lake City. Nearing the end of his playing career, Daniel has produced six goals and 20 assists during his time in the MLS.
What's it like being the mother of a pro athlete?
"It's hardest to watch your child on TV and see them get hurt, and you don't know how badly they're hurt," Mrs. Hernandez said. "It's happened many, many times. But you just feel really proud when you see your son out there and sometimes you can't believe it's your child."
Rose, Guzman Families
Among those who are making multiple trips to the Dallas area each week are the families of Tyler Junior College women's soccer coach Corey Rose and Rosy Guzman, whose daughters play on the same Richardson-based team, the Sting.
Both previously played for the East Texas Sting, one of the clubs that recently started to call East Texas home. But the chance to practice and play in the bigger city was too enticing to pass up, meaning their balancing act is similar to what Dempsey and the Hernandezes once experienced.
The families carpool for each practice; the Roses driving on Tuesdays and the Guzmans taking the wheel Thursdays.
"I have a passion for the sport," said CeCe Guzman, a 14-year-old sophomore at Bishop Gorman Catholic School. "Growing up around it, I knew I wanted to play it all the time and if I couldn't do anything else, I could do that."
Guzman has three siblings: Blanca, a Gorman senior; Martin, a Gorman eighth-grader; and Greg, a St. Gregory fourth-grader. Blanca and Greg have competed for the Tyler-based clubs.
But CeCe currently puts the most into club play.
"What I'm looking for is to hopefully get a scholarship to college," Mrs. Guzman said. "These are huge tournaments she's going to. She's traveling all around so colleges can look at her.
"She really enjoys the game. That means she can compete and show her skills and her abilities. My goal, out of all this, is that she will get picked up by a college team."
Having built TJC into a national power, coach Rose understands what it takes to perform at the collegiate level. This past season, the Apache Ladies went 24-0 and claimed their second NJCAA Division I national title in three years.
The program is only in its fourth year.
"Usually with club soccer you are getting the better coaching, so that's what's going to make you a better player," coach Rose said. "The more you stay with rec with a dad-coaching mentality, that's probably the highest you are ever going to get. I'm not saying the girls have to drive to Dallas to meet those club goals.
"At some level you can meet those goals at the East Texas level. For us, personally, I wasn't able to coach (my daughter Kennedy) because our relationship as father-daughter, so the next best thing was for her to go try out for a Dallas team. Fortunately for her, she made it."
Regarding the thousands spent each year for CeCe to play soccer, Mrs. Guzman said, "As far as I'm concerned, it's because my daughter loves to play. I never played soccer and my husband never played soccer. I do support her 100 percent, so that's basically my reason. There are so many people who love soccer, but I love it because my kids love it."
In addition to the Sting, another option for club soccer in East Texas is the Tyler Azzurri Football Club. Club president and former TJC player Bryan Brady, said the club offers affordable rates for prospective players with monthly fees as low as $50.
"What we are trying to do is provide them quality training," said Brady, whose club includes tournament showcase, travel and local teams. "Dallas looks to put together the top players in each age group, while Azzur
ri takes the standpoint of it's our job to prepare all the kids."
On Monday evenings, the Azzurri and TJC host training sessions that provide players with professional coaching. Each academy season costs $50 per player, Brady said. The current spring season concludes Monday night.
In this year's MLS draft, former TJC standout and Azzurri coach Dom Dwyer was drafted 16th overall by Sporting Kansas City.
Coach Andre' Lo
A coach with years of club experience is Andre' Lo, who undertook a new challenge of coaching at the high school level during the past decade.
The eighth-year Pine Tree boys coach also puts more emphasis on development than winning, due to his experience coaching in the Olympic Development Program, a national identification and development program for the nation's top players.
That said, Lo has experienced success in the University Interscholastic League -- the governing body for Texas public schools -- evidenced by a 138-46-16 overall record. His teams have been fixtures in the Class 4A playoff picture over the years.
"Coaching (ODP kids) is a lot different than high school," Lo said. "The challenge of coaching high school is that the level of play is lower. Some years you have better players and other years the quality is uneven."
Prior to coaching at Pine Tree, Lo coached Longview area youth as the director of coaching for the now-disbanded Elite Soccer Club and served as an instructor for the North Texas State Soccer Association. A father of two and a husband of 32 years, the Hong Kong native believes soccer is on the upswing in East Texas.
"In the club environment you pay to play," Lo said. "In the club environment you can pick your own players through tryouts. In order to have a consistent high school program you have to work with all aspects of people -- administration, parents, players and club. Club teams are the ones who develop your players."
That's the most important aspect of coaching soccer, Lo said. He's discovered that some high school teams are successful without teaching the sport properly, which negatively affects players' individual chances at the college level, he said.
"I coach in development and not in winning," Lo said. "That's why we might be more consistent in the
long run. I've always focused on development because I want them to play better soccer."