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Girls Dec 31, 2013

Paul Riley grows youth empire with National Elite Soccer Showcase tourney

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Many national soccer observers know him as the newly-appointed head coach of NWSL inaugural champions Portland Thorns FC, or remember his previous work with the Philadelphia Independence, plucky title contenders in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league.

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But Paul Riley‘s name rings out with particular reverence on Long Island, N.Y.’s dense, hyper-competitive youth soccer scene, where over the past two decades he’s carved out a reputation as a charismatic producer of good players, good people, high-performing teams and entertaining one-liners at all levels of the game.

“As much as I’m competitive in youth soccer, I think it’s more important that they get to where they need to get the kids in terms of college,” said the wisecracking Englishman, describing his coaching philosophy in a recent conversation with SoccerWire.com. “You develop them as much as you can. You shake their hands at 18, and you wave good-bye.

“That’s really what it’s all about to me.”

The director of coaching at Albertson SC, Riley (pictured above) has helped build that youth club into a national contender whose best teams compete in the Elite Clubs National League (girls) and U.S. Soccer Development Academy (boys). That work has also shown itself on the elite tournament scene via the growth of the National Elite Women’s Soccer Showcase (NEWSS), a Thanksgiving weekend event which marked its 11th year in 2013 as some 300 competitive Under-13 through U-18 teams from across the Eastern Seaboard took part.

Now Riley and his associates are rolling out another tournament venture for 2014 with the debut of the National Elite Soccer Showcase (NESS), a co-ed, recruiting-focused event set for March 1-2 at multiple venues across western and central Long Island. Limiting entry to just 32 teams per age group, organizers are keen to produce a spectacle densely packed with both college-eligible prospects from top clubs and the NCAA coaches who scout them.

“We’re not really interested in 700, 800 teams … We’re not after the big numbers here. For us, it’s more a case of bringing in the better teams,” Riley explained. “It’s an opportunity for the better teams to be able to play in a better environment and for the colleges to [recruit].

“It’s very rare that you can have a true showcase, a true tournament at this level on Long Island,” he added. “So it’s an opportunity I don’t think anybody wants to miss. It’s a cheap alternative to get your kids looked at.”

Riley is also hosting a new event during the tournament called the National Coaches Training Symposium, a gathering of coaches, vendors, technical staffers and other industry folk for a range of clinics, continuing education opportunities and the like on Saturday, Mar. 1. Attendance is free for coaches whose teams are participating in the NESS and others can pay a modest entry free ($55) to take part. Riley himself expects to take part in the symposium, despite the fact that by then he’ll also be preparing Thorns FC for the opening of NWSL’s second season in April.

He and tournament director Kevin Koehn hope the twin-billed occasion takes root in similar fashion to their signature NEWSS event in the fall. Overcoming several years in which it was threatened by foul weather – most devastatingly when Hurricane Sandy hammered the Tri-State region in 2012 – NEWSS slowly grew into a destination event for the region and now draws interest on a national level, especially as an alternative to more distant events like the famous Surf Cup in San Diego.

A high reliance on synthetic-turf fields means that the Thanksgiving showcase can proceed under all but the nastiest conditions. And a two-day format, while draining for the players, has proved effective at drawing 200 or so college coaches a year even in the midst of the NCAA season.

“The Long Island teams never really had a true showcase tournament in our own area,” recalled Riley. “We have a lot of good facilities in Long Island. We don’t have a lot of big facilities, but we have a lot of good facilities.”

Falling the weekend before the sprawling Jefferson Cup (Va.) arrives heralding the heart of the spring youth tournament calendar, the National Elite Soccer Showcase looks like a marked change of pace from the industry’s general shift towards super-sized events with several tiers of competition level, and thus something of a gamble.

The lineup of talent on the tourney’s accepted-teams list will need to be attractive to lure top NCAA Division 1 scouts, whose presence will in turn lead to increasing demand for events slots in future years.

But those who know Riley well will tell you that he’s accustomed to carving out his own path.

“The reality is, it’s a better situation for the kids to get looked at,” he said.

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