In my nearly 40 years of playing soccer, I have had the fortunate opportunity to travel around the world and play on almost every continent — from the slums of India, between the skyscrapers in Hong Kong, under the Parthenon in Greece and more. Now it’s time to cultivate the sport at home. The business development opportunities are significant and the positive community implications are profound.
Charlottesville has the unique potential to establish itself as a national hub for cultivating elite-caliber soccer talent and offer robust infrastructure for supporting the sport.
This potential exists in Charlottesville in part because of the internationally rich and unique soccer community fueled by the University as well as by the International Rescue Committee, which actively resettles refugees in the area. Local adult leagues are thriving. Both high school and club teams have been state winners. Local businesses are actively providing support. Excitement is also fueled by the University program. The men’s team is the reigning national champion, and the women’s team was the national runner up. All that is really needed to take off on the national stage is a unifying vision to bind all of these dedicated and interested assets together in a common purpose.
Charlottesville soccer is already making waves in the national soccer scene. Local amateur team Aromas Café FC recently defeated Pittsburgh’s Tartan Devils Oak Avalon FC 3-1 in the first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The tournament is the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the United States for amateur, professional and semi-professional soccer teams. Four players are active University graduate students, two are employees and two former alumni. Team members include Charlottesville-area residents from Colombia, Croatia, France, Germany, Iran, Kenya and Mexico.
There couldn’t be a better time, either — soccer’s popularity is booming. A recent LA Times article reports that millennials are 16 percent more interested in soccer than any other U.S. demographic. The Women’s World Cup, which included breakout star Morgan Brian — a recent University graduate — was watched by 20-25 million people, more than the NBA finals or Stanley Cup. Globally, over 2 billion people are reported as soccer fans. In the United States, the Wall Street Journal’s recent article on the sport’s growth reports that attendance at Major League Soccer games has grown 40 percent in the last 10 years. And right here in Charlottesville, just drive around town on any given Saturday and you’ll see that every spare blade of grass is occupied by a kid in a SOCA, YMCA or MonU youth soccer program. SOCA alone reports over 20 percent participation in youth ages 5-18, double the rate reported from the statewide Virginia Youth Soccer Association.
How can we tap into this tremendous potential?
First, our community leaders need to take a serious look at providing or soliciting investment to improve soccer infrastructure in Charlottesville. Recently the Neighborhood Development Services helped secure money for a new skate park designed to “drive the economy” and bring skaters from all over the East Coast. We need the same enthusiasm for soccer from both the community and community leaders. The positive economic implications for Charlottesville for embracing this sport’s growth are tremendous. An entire community model is needed, one that other cities can follow.
Second, the community needs to come together to support the launch of a National Premier Soccer League or Premier Development League team and academy in Charlottesville. Specifically, the PDL is a development league that focuses on preparing young soccer players for careers in professional soccer leagues. The launch of the Tom Sox baseball team provides a promising example of how a local PDL team could successfully develop amateur talent while providing community entertainment.
Third, and finally, we need to rally our extraordinary community assets around a common vision to make Charlottesville a national hub for cultivating elite-caliber soccer and to prop up our city as an exemplar of how a city can come together to support this growing sport.
I’ve walked on to pick-up games in Argentina, Brazil, Greece, England, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Canada and countless cities throughout the United States. I’ve played with people from every walk of life, people who have nothing in common with me but a passion for the game. Soccer is a truly global sport. It provides an opportunity to bridge cultural divides and build lasting friendships. It’s a game played by people who have dreams and determination, regardless of background.
On Nov. 15 at 3 p.m. at Charlottesville High School, Aromas Café FC will participate in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup against the Aegean Hawks from Washington, D.C. I invite you to come out to see firsthand the intensity and talent of the soccer community in your city and to share in our vision.
David Deaton is the captain of local soccer club Aromas Café FC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @DeatonDavid.