By Kyle DePontes
TINTON FALLS – A new era is set to begin in New Jersey Youth Soccer. The New Jersey Cedar Stars Academy has broken ground on a new, $25 million sports facility in Tinton Falls. The Capelli Sports Complex will be located on the west side of Wayside Road, with the Garden State Parkway on the south. Built exclusively for NJCSA players, the complex will have five outdoor soccer fields with lighting including two synthetic turf soccer fields as well as a 140,000 square foot indoor complex that will have an indoor soccer field as well as a long list of other amenities including locker rooms, basketball courts, a rock climbing wall and a gym. The two outdoor turf fields are phase one of the construction and are set to be completed this fall. Saddle River resident George Altirs, the founder of the clothing manufacturer Capelli Sport, will finance the project.
Altirs has long been prominent in the New Jersey soccer community. In 2014, Altirs donated nearly $500,000 to install new artificial turf for Saint Benedict’s soccer program in Newark, and in 2011 he turned one of his Capelli warehouses in Carlstadt into topnotch indoor fields. But Altirs’ plans for the Cedar Stars extends far beyond an expensive soccer facility. Already, the academy has appointed a new youth academy director, and is attracting some of the best players and coaches in the area.
New Jersey has a rich soccer history and has long been a hotbed of soccer development. Beginning in the 1980s, northern Jersey produced some of the United States most valuable players, including World Cup stars Tony Meola, John Harkes, and Tab Ramos, all of whom hailed from Kearny, and Claudio Reyna, who grew up in Livingston, and who captained the U.S. national team in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. The current Men’s National Team captain, Michael Bradley, spent his childhood in Pennington, while his father was the head coach for Princeton University. And Tim Howard, considered by many to be the best U.S. goalie ever, and who gained legendary status when his 15 saves against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup broke an international record, grew up in North Brunswick. On the Women’s National Team, key players and 2015 World Cup winners Heather O’Reilly and Tobin Heath hail from East Brunswick and Basking Ridge respectively. Carli Lloyd, who received the Golden Ball as the best player in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, was born and raised in Delran.
Today, more and more kids are playing soccer, and the U.S. participation in recent World Cups, as well as the success of Major League Soccer has sparked a renewed interest in the game. NBC’s new multi-million dollar deal to broadcast the English Premier League, widely considered one of the best leagues in the world, has also had an impact in marketing the game to Americans. Soccer is now considered “cool” again among younger generations, and with the decline of youth participation in baseball, as well as the recent concussion crisis in the NFL, many parents are opting to place their kids in soccer.
The statistics support this. In 1974, US Youth Soccer recorded 103,432 registered youth soccer players. In 2014, there were 3,055,148 registered youth players, over 29 times the amount in 1974. Amazingly, tiny New Jersey and Massachusetts led the way in youth participation, surpassing not only their region, but also every other state, in some states by over 100,000 players. In 2014, New Jersey boasted 151,000 registered youth soccer players.
But for many parents, driving sons and daughters to games can be tiresome, especially when their kids are failing to get the proper coaching and exposure needed to make it to the next level. In recent years, however, many parents are opting for an alternative to the traditional club model – the soccer academy.
“Academy soccer has more to do with training time than traveling,” said Tab Ramos, the President and Technical Director of NJCSA, echoing the popular European model of development that has now gained traction in the U.S. “In the past, U.S. kids might have trained one or two days a week, with multiple games on weekends. Now we train four days a week with one game.”
Soccer academies, which are organizations that attract top-notch coaches and players from many different towns and are dedicated almost exclusively to training, were almost unheard of PDA (Player Development Academy) was founded in Bernardsville. Ramos, now the assistant coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team and arguably the best American soccer player ever, set his sights on a new project after a lengthy career in Mexico, Spain, and the United States. In 2004 Ramos helped found NJSA 04 (New Jersey Soccer Academy), which in the initial stages combined players from Freehold, Howell, and Holmdel. NJSA 04 saw tremendous success at an early stage, with its U-15 team known as The Gunners, capturing a national championship in 2008. But even as late as 2008, there were still no real distinctions between academies and regular travel teams.
Although academies theoretically attracted better coaches and players, they still competed against town teams and took part in some of the same competitions. It was not until late 2008 that U.S. soccer stepped in to form the “Development Academy,” a massive organization containing every academy team in the country. The Development Academy is a partnership between U.S. Soccer and the top youth clubs around the country to provide the best youth players in the U.S. with an everyday environment designed to produce the next generation of National Team players. The league is comprised of 77 teams from around the country, with ten divisions and four conferences. Each team will play around 30 games a year. While the light game schedule appeals to many parents, some remain hesitant over placing kids in an academy, especially since U.S. Soccer prohibits academy players from participating in any events outside of the Developmental Academy or National Team. This means no high school soccer. But the exposure that academies offer more than makes up for it.
“Eighty-nine percent of Youth National Team Call Ups come from the Academy. If you’re not on a Developmental Academy club you have minimal chance of being called to the National Team” said Ramos. It’s also no mystery that college coaches favor academies. In 2013, 17 players on NJSA 04’s U18 team went on to play soccer at Division One universities. “High school soccer is fun,” said Justin McStay, a member of the NJCSA U-15/16 team. “But the level of play in academy is very high and it has more competition than high school. A lot of college coaches also look through the academies.”
Cost is another factor that most parents consider when choosing a team, but at academies this is a non-issue. That’s because for players on a team within the Developmental Academy, soccer is free. At NJCSA, parents do not pay anything for boys on the U-18 and U-16 academy teams. NJCSA has applied for the Girls Developmental Academy, so starting next year U-18 and U-16 girls academy teams at NJCSA will also be free. This does not mean that every team within NJCSA is free, there are still a number of pre-academy boys teams, and girls’ teams outside the Development Academy and parents can expect to pay around $1600-$2400 for the entire season.
Next year there will be further developments at NJCSA. Currently, NJCSA has three branches in New Jersey: Monmouth, Bergen County, and Newark. And the academy will soon be branching out to Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Orange County, New York. In the coming years, NJCSA plans on adding more age groups, such as U-12, and also incorporating their girls teams into the Development Academy. What ever direction, the academy chooses to go in, the future looks bright.
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