If enthusiasm for the sport is any indicator, there may be a future World Cup soccer champion growing up in the Wallowa Valley.
On Sept. 9, about 225 youths organized into teams sponsored by valley businesses held their kickoff event at fields in Enterprise, Joseph and Wallowa under the auspices of the Wallowa Valley Youth Soccer Association.
The sport is considered the most popular sport worldwide with more than 250 million players, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, though it’s lagged behind other sports in the U.S. A nationwide explosion of interest in the sport in recent years – known as football in other English-speaking countries – may have been affected by the notoriety of soccer from the Olympics and World Cup. But locals see it in a more basic level.
“I can’t really speak on a scale outside our program,” said Jeff Yanke, president of the association. “I think we just continue to build interest.”
“I think parents are wanting to get their kids outside more and keep them active,” said Jessica Tomasini, of Enterprise, one of the association’s coaches. “It’s a fun sport the kids really enjoy. I got involved because they had such an influx of kids and they needed coaches. … I wanted it to be so all the kids could play.”
Another coach, Jamie VanderZanden, of Enterprise, said it is a good alternative to indoor activities.
“Maybe it’s that people need more exercise,” she said.
She said she volunteered to coach “because I love kids and to encourage the team.”
Teams are organized into three levels: U8 (ages 5 through 7), U11 (under age 11) and U14 (under age 14), Tomasini said.
The registration deadline for this year’s season was Aug. 2, according to the association’s website, but kids can sign up for next year. The cost to register was $30 this year.
Yanke said he didn’t anticipate an increase next year. He did note the association offers scholarships for those in need.
The website also tells of a soccer camp called UK International that brings in coaches from Europe and the United Kingdom for kids 4 to 14 years old that takes place in late July and early August. Cost for the camp is $116 for the first session, a half-day camp, and $165 for the second session, which is a full-day camp.
Yanke said the cost for the camp could increase incrementally, though the association doesn’t receive funds from it. The association merely hosts the camp, he said.
“That’s a whole different organization,” he said.
He noted there is some dissatisfaction in the valley over the short length of the season.
“We get a lot of heartache over our registration process,” Yanke said. “We figure a six-week season is all we can do.”
He said that since it gets dark too early by mid- or late October, the season starts soon after Labor Day. He said they need time between the registration deadline and start of play to get ready.
Part of the preparation is compiling the team rosters, which they make an effort to balance for age, gender and skill level.
In all the age groups there are 21 teams comprised of 10 to 13 youths per team for a total of 225 players, Yanke said. Of that total, there are 16 teams in Enterprise, three in Joseph and two in Wallowa.
At the younger levels, kids are simply learning basic skills of passing, defending, kicking and scoring, although no scores are kept, Tomasini said. At the older levels, they start to learn more advanced skills and keep score.
“There isn’t really a curriculum, but the level of play gets progressively more competitive,” Yanke said.
Games are played twice a week on weekdays. The association’s season runs through Oct. 19 – a Saturday – when they’ll wrap up the season with a jamboree that will be a day full of numerous short games, Tomasini said.
The local businesses sponsor individual teams, but the association is mostly made up of volunteers run by a board.
“We’re entirely volunteer run,” Yanke said.
He said the program is experiencing phenomenal growth. For example, last year, there were two teams in the 11-13 age group. This year, there are five teams.
“What we’ve done is try to go to a smaller game format, having about seven players on the field at a time,” he said.
“It’s certainly been growing in recent years,” he said. “We are wholly dependent on number of volunteers.”
And that need is expected to continue.
“It’s really necessary we keep backfilling it with vols,” he said.
He also said the local communities where soccer is played are a big help.
“We really appreciate the cities for maintaining fields for us,” he said.
Unfortunately, there is no further opportunity for soccer participation in the valley after kids complete the levels offered by the association, as youths take part in other team sports in junior high and high school.
“The soccer experience in Wallowa County ends at age 14,” Yanke said.