The Union of the Blue and the Orange
Brian Ellis, left, Bill Boyer, center, and Brian Housler of the Delaware Union Soccer Club.
By Richard L. Gaw
Normally, when a consortium of individuals connect their separate ideas together and make them one, such as in the case of the formation of the Delaware Union Soccer Club, things are supposed to start slowly.
And yet, mere months after the club was officially formed, after its logo was fresh off the press after its leagues were finalized, after its rules were written, and after hundreds of its now signature blue and orange team jerseys were stitched together, something happened in August that said to the club's founders, "This is going to be big."
For two consecutive days, the Union sponsored its first-ever soccer tournament, the Delaware Union Soccer Club Kickoff Classic Tournament. One hundred teams from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania converged on the village of Middletown, bringing over 4,000 people to the area over the course of the tournament. In a state that has established itself as one of the premiere soccer spots in the Northeast, the Delaware Union was now front and center.
Originally formed in 1980 as the M.O.T. Soccer Program, the league not only changed its name and spiffed up its appearance, it has multiplied its popularity. The Union, which formally kicked off on June 1, now boasts over 1,300 players, who participate in everything from introductory fun for youngsters under four, five and six years of age to advanced leagues for teenagers as old as 18 years; travel soccer opportunities through its representative program; player development sessions; a week-long summer camp featuring guest lecturers; and recreational age divisions.
The number of players, as well as opportunities for them, is about to increase. Within the next year, the Union will merge with the Central Delaware Soccer Association in Dover -- representing the "union" between the two leagues -- and form what will become the largest soccer association south of the C & D Canal. With the merger, the number of participants is expected to exceed 3,000 players.
While this merger of youth soccer in Middletown, Odessa, Townsend and in nearby Smyrna and Dover is expected to boost numbers, across the nation, the numbers are exploding. US Youth Soccer, the largest member of the United States Soccer Federation and the governing body of youth soccer in the nation, began in 1974 with 100,000 registered players. It now has a total of 3 million players, as well as 600,000 volunteers and 300,000 coaches.
"We're a microcosm of that success, but in establishing the Union, we're also changing some things and challenging the protocol of the last 25 years," said Bill Boyer, the Union's director of coaching. "When you make something better and add value, people will give it a shot. Today's consumer is smarter, so our challenge is making our product better, or at least as good as other programs."
In developing its own format, the Union looked over its shoulder at two of the other soccer programs in the state, the Kirkwood Soccer Club and the Hockessin Soccer Club, which are located in New Castle and Hockessin, respectively.
"Kirkwood and Hockessin have burned a great path for us," Boyer said. "It's hard to create something new, so we've looked at other regional models and picked the best parts out of them and woven them into what we want to do with our own program."
Boyer said that to truly witness the examples of league's immediate success, all one would need to do was witness the start of the Club's fall schedule, seen at its playing fields at Middletown Village and Silver Lake Park. Boyer called the launch of the Union the start of what he calls the league's "heritage," which he said is seen most clearly in the personal development of each player, beginning when they are old enough to start kicking the ball around. The Union's Player Development Sessions are open to all kids under six and seven, and although the program has a loose, recreational feel, it allows young children to work with coaches in order to develop a better sense for the game's movement and its strategies, while at the same time maximizing the amount of "touches" the player receives.
"The culture of the game is such that once you get started it naturally progresses from level to level, but it really begins when a young boy or girl is 4 or 5," Boyer said. "At this age, our goal is to just have the kids become familiar with the ball. The saying is that you can't be technical if you're not tactical, and learning all of that is made easier if you learn to do the small things at that young age.
"It's all foundation," Boyer added. "We want to make them comfortable with the game, so that as they get older and the game gets faster, they will be able to make on-field decisions more quickly."
Representative Director Brian Ellis been with the program for the last 7 years, and during that time, has witnessed the growth of traveling teams, and both regional and national tournaments. Once confined to short bus rides from town to neighboring town, the popularity of youth representative soccer has received under-the-lights attention, and the Delaware Union is no exception. Its travel squads, ranging from the Under-9 teams to the under-18 squads, have a total of 18 licensed coaches and trainers for its 300 players. Two of these teams are competing at the Division 1 level.
Because the newly-formed Union is still in its infancy, Ellis said that the league's representative program is adapting a one-step-at-a-time approach. The days of long travel will have to wait; Ellis said for now, the Union will play in tournaments in nearby Cecil County (Md.) and Delaware County (Pa.).
"In the beginning, when a representative team is just starting out, it's important to start out as local as possible," he said. "It's a better environment for the players and for the league as a whole to see how we do first, and work our way up from there. We don't want to have these teams getting crushed every time, but keep them on a level where they can compete."
When it comes to youth sports, gone are the days of pick-up games in the backyard or at a local park, where a soccer goal was represented by the distance between two trees, with not a parent in sight. In today's culture, the parent is often front-and-center in the development of a young player, and although intentions are often good, the results can be detrimental. Too many times, a kid with soccer promise finds himself or herself on the pitch listening to two different instructions -- one from the coach and the other from the parent. Car rides home from a match can amount to a 15-minute wiping away of any instruction he or she has learned from coaches, delivered by an overzealous parent intent on involvement.
"At 4, 5 and 6 years of age, a child's sense is that he or she wants to touch the ball as much as possible, which enables them to enjoy the game and keep coming back," Boyer said. "A lot of times, however, by the time the young boy or girl turns 12, they're tired of the pressure they receive. Their thought then becomes, 'If I go skateboarding with my friends and fall, I'm not going to be yelled at.'"
Realizing this culture, The Union has instituted a code of conduct not only for its coaches but for its parents (See Page xx), intended to encourage them to become less a part of the game and more a part of the encouragement needed to help their young player.
"Most of us grew up in a time when parents were much more instructional than they needed to be, especially in soccer, despite the fact that back then, not a lot of parents had played the game themselves," Ellis said. "Consequently, you had a football mentality brought to parental involvement, but the nature of soccer coaching now is that we're moving away from that to an intellectually charged atmosphere.
"Instead of being an instructional parent, we encourage them to be more supportive and positive in their interactions with their kids," Ellis said.
As the fall season progresses, the soccer balls kicked by hundreds of those youngsters involved with the Union has the club logo on them. The foothold the newly-named league is making on the future of soccer in Delaware is in step with successful programs north of the C & D Canal. What the long-term future holds for the Union, Ellis said, will not be determined by how many young players it sends to the high school, college and pro levels, nor by how it fares in state, regional and national representative tournaments. This is a marathon, and not a sprint, he said.
"The bottom line of how we measure success is not in wins and losses and trophies," Ellis said. "For many of us coaches, it's when we look at our team and we can tell they had a good time. (Union president) Brian Housler and I were talking a few nights ago about what we call the 'ah-ha' moments, when you see a kid 'get it,' whether it's a move or a through pass. I think of all the many aspects of what I enjoy about coaching, I love seeing that light bulb go off in a young player, most of all."
For more information about the Delaware Union Soccer Club, visit www.motsoccer.com, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com.