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Tournaments Aug 13, 2013

National Guard goes all-in on youth soccer: “We just want to get the word out”

By Mike McCall

When players show up to soccer camps and tournaments to try and impress college coaches, they know they’re competing for a limited number of scholarship spots.

But for those looking to have their education paid for, there’s more than one type of recruiting going on at soccer events across the country.

In December, the National Guard announced partnerships with the United Soccer League (USL), US Youth Soccer (USYS) and the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), with a plan to sponsor tournaments, provide free soccer clinics to high school-aged players and spread awareness of the National Guard.

Since February, the National Guard has hosted around 25 clinics, and that number will triple over the next year beginning in October, said Sergeant First Class David Therrell, the program manager for the National Guard’s soccer campaign.

At each clinic, the National Guard foots the bill, removing the often prohibitive costs that can accompany youth soccer events. Partnering with organizations like the ECNL and US Youth Soccer provides the expertise, and Therrell said there are criteria in place for facilities, staff and trainers to ensure a valuable experience for the players.

“We want everybody walking way saying, ‘Wow, this is a nice clinic,’” he said.

So what’s in it for the National Guard? About 30 minutes.

In exchange for the experience — lessons, a chance to play in front of college coaches or even free food — players listen to a short presentation on the benefits of joining the National Guard, which include salary and the opportunity to have college tuition paid for.

That can be an attractive proposition for players in high school, whom Therrell said fit a similar profile to those sought by the National Guard.

They’re physically fit, focused and often good students who are driven to attend college. The youth soccer scene is also more neutral in terms of gender and size than sports like football, baseball and basketball, and altogether, the National Guard can more precisely target recruits who have the potential to become officers.

“If 100 kids attend an event, if just one walks away interested in the Guard, it was a good clinic for us,” Therrell said.

But he calls the presentation a “soft sell,” choosing to let the benefits do the talking.

“Some people are hesitant to bring the military in, and I totally get it,” he said. “I completely understand why. Some parents are very put off by the military being in front of their kids, but we’re not trying to recruit everybody, and we can’t.

“We just want to get the word out and make everybody aware of the benefits. Those who are thinking about it may think about the National Guard instead of another branch of service.”

And the benefits extend beyond the players.

It’s an attractive proposal for college coaches too, who have picked up on the impact that the National Guard can have on their program’s limited scholarship budget.

“‘You mean that won’t count against my scholarship money?’” Therrell recalls one coach asking. “They’re like, ‘Wow,’ and you can see in their heads the other kids they can recruit now. You can see the gears going in their heads. It’s about getting the word out and letting everybody know what’s out there.”

Outside of clinics, they’ve spread the word at several high-profile tournaments, sponsoring the USL’s 2012 Super Y-League North American Finals, the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series and ECNL National Events.

On Sunday, they hosted a clinic with the Fredericksburg Area Soccer Association (Va.) and the USL that was attended by U.S. stars Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger (pictured at left), and Mia Hamm has also attended events in the past.

All that makes for a top-notch event, and with the right skills, players can become highly ranked officers without even enlisting.

That’s done through juggling contests, with t-shirts and rank given out at a minimum of 25 juggles. The higher they go, the higher the rank, with any player over 1,000 juggles earning the title of general.

+USWNT stars draw crowds to free FASA-National Guard clinic ]

So many have achieved that daunting feat that Therrell said the National Guard is considering additional denominations for two, three and four-star generals.

No matter how the scale is adjusted, there won’t ever be enough stars to match the performance of 16-year-old Maryland native Kiera Lyons. At an ECNL event in Texas, Lyons juggled an astonishing 12,955 times for nearly two-and-a-half hours to set the National Guard’s record.

“Kiera said if anyone breaks her record, she’s going to come back and do it again,” Therrell said.

Based on the National Guard’s plans to expand to more clubs, clinics and tournaments, Lyons will have plenty of competition, and Therrell said the feedback thus far has been great, with one parent even approaching him to say the clinic was the best she’d ever seen.

“That made me feel good about the program and that we must be doing something right,” Therrell said.

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