Every sport has its own intricacies and unique qualities. But for the most part, each sport has a school-based season, some form of recreational opportunity and a league for advanced year-round competition.
Soccer is a different beast entirely.
While high school is the marquee for many sports, soccer’s most elite competition is played outside of schools.
Club soccer, which comes in many forms and levels, defines the sport’s success and dictates which athletes have a chance to play beyond high school.
In Clark County, there are three clubs — Washington Timbers FC, FC Salmon Creek and Pacific Soccer Club — that feature advanced competition teams. Though the three operate as nonprofit organizations, millions of dollars come through the growing Clark County soccer scene each year, which serves more than 5,000 players.
While Seattle and Portland still entice the most elite players to nationally recognized programs, Vancouver is becoming an attractive place to nurture one’s love of soccer.
“Players’ options as a whole in the Vancouver area are slowly changing,” former Ridgefield soccer coach Robby Trimbo said. “On the club side, we hold our own but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
For players who aspire to play in college, advanced competition is a necessity, players and coaches agreed.
Every player on MacKenzie Ellertson’s Washington State women’s soccer team has club experience.
The same goes for Macee Woods’ Chico State team.
Washington Timbers directors of coaching, Biniam Afenegus (George Fox) and Jeff Castagnola (Western Oregon), also said their college teams are exclusively composed of club soccer talents.
Even at the junior college level, it’s rare a player didn’t compete in some form of advanced competition, Lower Columbia women’s soccer coach Bryan Vogel said.
“With club soccer, they’re going to have to be very committed and they’re getting great coaching, great competition and importantly, exposure,” said Afenegus, who has coached soccer for 22 years including at Southern Oregon, Clark College and currently at George Fox in Newberg, Ore. “Definitely for their development, they need to be playing club soccer.”
Coaching and development
Aside from training two to three days a week 10 months a year, the level of coaching distinguishes club soccer from recreational or school soccer. Many advanced-competition coaches go through certification and licensing to grow as mentors.
The years-long United States Soccer Federation licensing process, which ranges from an ‘E’ license to the prestigious ‘A’ license, trains and develops coaches, who also use the time to bounce concepts off each other.
“It really helped me take the ideas in my head and made me a better teacher,” said Trimbo, who spent eight years getting his ‘A’ license and is one of the few coaches in the area with the country’s top license. “You’re seeing more coaches getting licenses now and it shows.”
With almost all of the Washington Timbers advanced-competition coaching staff having a license, it’s allowed the club to thrive with their coaches all using the same terminology and concepts throughout a players’ development.
“There’s a lot of movement within clubs for the kids who want to be pushed,” Afenegus said. “So if you have the same lingo, the same philosophy, the transition is smooth.”
In a high school season, where coaches have just 10-12 weeks to train, it’s difficult to develop players in any incremental way. At the club level, that progress is quickly found for those who seek it.
“The biggest benefit has just been improving my game overall,” said Greer Snellman, a Columbia River incoming senior and Washington Timbers player. “With a higher intensity team, you’re getting better training and the only way I could become the best player I could be was at club.”
Plenty of options
Soccer’s abundance of choices for high-level players adds a layer of complexity to the advanced-competition circuit. While there is some overlap between each of the levels, a distinguished watcher of the sport can usually spot the differences in talent.
“The biggest thing is technical ability and pace of play,” Vogel said.
At the lowest level, there is recreational soccer, which starts at ages 4 or 5. Its primary purpose is to make the sport enjoyable. The coaches are volunteers and enrollment fees are low — less than $100.
Select teams are the next step up and usually start for kids at 9 or 10 years old. Washington Timbers’ White teams and Pacific FC’s teams fit this category. In select, some coaches are licensed and player fees, including uniforms and minimal travel, are in the $700-$900 range.
For the players who thrive, premier soccer, which includes Washington Timbers’ Red teams and many of FC Salmon Creek’s advanced competition teams, offers an additional level of competition. Coaching positions are usually paid at this level, and player fees can total up to $2,000 after uniforms and travel. Teams compete in regional league seasons and participate in semi-local tournaments.
The most skilled players can participate on an “elite development” team to compete against high-level competition across the country. These squads are spread out between the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), Elite Development Program (EDP) or the Olympic Development Program (ODP). The Washington Timbers have some boys’ teams that compete in the ECNL, while many of the area’s highest-skilled girls will play for FC Portland’s ECNL teams. Costs can mount up to $5,000 after travel and uniforms.
“I would say there was a pretty big difference. There’s a lot more skilled girls,” said Woods, a Union High grad who played for Washington Timbers before transitioning to FC Portland’s ECNL team in eighth grade. “There’s a difference between the girls who wanted to play for fun and the girls who wanted to play in college. In ECNL, everyone wanted to play in college.”
For the players that get noticed by professional teams out of those elite programs, they can be recruited into one of the 95 MLS academy teams, where players are treated as employees and there’s greater chances of playing professionally after graduation.
Woodland incoming junior Jackson Finn is a member of the Portland Timbers Academy, which trains three hours a day and travel most weekends. The cost is minimal, Finn said, and the team pays for travel and uniforms. Academy players who sign a contract are not allowed to play high school soccer, whereas most premier and select players compete under their school banner.
“You definitely have to be mature; it’s a professional environment,” Finn said. “You’re always fighting for your spot in the academy so you really have to dedicate yourself.”
College roster spots are often as much about getting seen by the right coach as it is about talent.
Many club soccer teams boast about the exposure they offer and participate in costly college showcases. With college seasons overlapping with high school seasons, club competitions and, importantly, showcases give college coaches the opportunity to see the best players all in one place.
Still, it’s hard to get noticed on a club team loaded with talent.
In high school, 50-80 percent of players might play some level of advanced competition. It’s easier for the best to stand out on that stage. When stacked up against hundreds of other players of the same caliber, it’s the small details that stand out.
“There’s little moments where you see things you can build on,” Vogel said of what he looks for when recruiting. “In club games it’s harder to pick out a diamond in the rough.”
Over time, certain clubs start to stand out as consistent producers of talent, Vogel said.
But just because a player has competed in club soccer for an extended period of time doesn’t mean they have a college spot locked up. Many kids burn out and opt out of soccer later in their teen years. Others simply aren’t recruited or don’t get the level of offer they want.
Last year, the Washington Timbers sent a program-record 28 players to college soccer rosters. Between 36 and 54 players graduate out of the Timbers’ advanced-competition programs each year.
“The most important thing is we’re putting teams in the right leagues and are accepted into the right tournaments,” Washington Timbers executive director Sean Janson said. “College coaches have limited resources and only go to limited events. We need to be at those.”
With the complexity of the club soccer scene, it can be dizzying to choose the best path for a young soccer player. In the end, though, coaches and players agreed it comes down to the dedication and work ethic of a player.
“Soccer is unique because you just have to have the right fit to be successful,” said Ellertson, who competed for FC Salmon Creek and Redmond’s Crossfire Premier in her youth career. “You don’t have to go to Crossfire or FC Portland to be successful. Find something where you’re at and work hard.”
Many club teams are currently training in small pods of 4-5 players due to COVID-19. Tryouts for the 2020-21 season are coming up this week for the Washington Timbers and in the near future for FC Salmon Creek and Pacific Soccer Club.
For more information, visit the following websites:
FC Salmon Creek — salmoncreeksoccer.com
Pacific Soccer Club — pacificfc.org
VanCity Soccer Club — vancitysoccerclub.com
Washington Timbers — washingtontimbers.com