That was the overall attendance for the WPIAL Soccer Championships from November 1-3, 2018 at Highmark Stadium.
High School soccer has built a decent following in our region as community residents love to support their friends and neighbors as they strive to win championships.
WPIAL Associate Executive Director, and Former Bethel Park Athletic Director (2006-2016), Amy Scheuneman cited expansion of classifications put into place a few years ago have helped its Olympic Sports, and specifically soccer, with substantial increase in attendance of approximately 80% at the WPIAL Championships since 2009-2010. In addition to this increase from six overall classifications to eight, all finals games have been played at Highmark Stadium.
As pointed out in part one of this series, interest in Soccer at the youth and high school levels in Western PA is there, but there seems to be a disconnect how the game is followed once you get to the college level and prior to the previous few seasons, even with interest in the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
Both West Allegheny Boys Soccer Coach Kevin Amos, who’s entering his 16th season as a Head Coach (fourth at West Allegheny), and Bethel Park Boys Soccer Coach Douglas Fink, who’s entering his second season as a head coach (spent 16 seasons as a Bethel Park assistant under Mike Galietta), can attest to the growth of interest and participation grow since they started coaching soccer.
“High School levels always fluctuate,” said Amos. “My first few years we had 20-25 players, this year and most years we have around 33-36 boys, some high seasons were 40 boys. West A(llegheny) levels in the youth are dropping, there are a lot of other sports coming in, lacrosse and rugby (for example), which are taking top athletes.”
Fink says that he has seen an increase in participation at the youth levels over his tenure at Bethel Park and that the competition has become even greater.
“I have certainly seen an increase in participation at the youth levels with more competitive soccer clubs,” said Fink. “There are tremendous training opportunities out there with various clubs and I feel that this has benefited our high school team.”
Fink also added that the level of soccer for each school fluctuates from year to year because some classes of students are better than others as is to be expected.
“As far as the level of soccer goes, I feel it comes and goes in waves,” said Fink. “I think this is to be expected as classes graduate and move on and new players enter the high school level. Certain classes are more talented than others but every year I feel that WPIAL Soccer is competitive and I enjoy trying to teach our kids about a sport that I am passionate about.”
Amos also weighs in with a fairly strong take on some of the promises that cup teams make to some players and what effect that has on high schools in the area as well.
“The promise of a soccer scholarship from the cup programs is driving players to Cup teams earlier,” said Amos. “Cup parents should save their $5K per year and put it away for college tuition. Pick a few colleges and have your player attend the college ID camp. If you are good enough, the college coach will not care what cup program you played for.”
For the record, almost all area clubs — including the Riverhounds Development Academy have encouraged its members to play for their high schools.
This is an ongoing topic nationally, as John Krysinsky wrote last Fall about the importance of high school soccer’s role in the development of the game. At one point in the column, he mentioned that the U.S. Soccer Federation doesn’t seem to be too enthralled with the high school game despite the likes of Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard having played high school soccer.
When looking at players produced from the WPIAL in recent years — are three female players that immediately come to mind who are from our region that have made it to the highest level of professional soccer: Veronica Latsko, Frannie Crouse and Meghan Klingenberg. One (Klingenberg) has excelled as a part of the United States National team, and all three played for WPIAL schools also while playing for their respective club teams.
One of the biggest stories of the year for the Riverhounds has been the emergence of Robbie Mertz (Upper St. Clair / Michigan) in his first season in the pros for his hometown club after being drafted by Colorado Rapids in January.
Nicky Kolarac, who played for Amos at West Allegheny, is a rare example of a player who pushed through the ranks to play collegiately, then earn pro contracts with the Hounds, but also in indoor soccer leagues.
“We didn’t have everything that these players have now,” Kolarac told Krysinsky recently. “Players today coming out of our area are definitely more prepared to play at higher levels of the game and they’re having an impact.”
CHANGES ON THE HORIZON IN WPIAL?
As for any changes on the horizon for WPIAL soccer, Scheuneman said with the recently expanded classifications, that dynamic shouldn’t see any changes for a while, but the WPIAL has been at the forefront of pushing for changes in the way soccer matches are officiated across the PIAA (Pennsylvania’s high school athletics governing body).
The WPIAL proposed a pilot program to the PIAA recently to switch to the “one whistle” to the “three whistle” system, which would attract more already certified officials to work high school and middle school matches — believing that this would help bring the rules of the game in line with the rest of the world, and provide for a safer game for everyone involved.
PIAA Officials Counsel, a state-wide panel of officials, voted by a 4- to-1 margin to recommend a trying this as a pilot program. When that pilot program proposal reached the PIAA Board of Directors, it was rejected.
While the WPIAL’s proposal was shot down, doesn’t mean there’s significant momentum building toward the entire state finally getting on board.
Amos agrees that it is time for the WPIAL and PIAA to join in with how the rest of the World officiates matches.
“The PIAA and WPIAL need to move to a 3-man diagonal system, 1 center and 2 sides,” said Amos. “The rest of the World uses this system. (The) 2-3 whistle system that is used now is terrible. The 3 referees rotate into the middle every 25 minutes so you end up having 3 different refs in one game. The current system is unfair for the players. If it was any other sport, the change would be made and if it works for the World, I’m sure it will be fine for PA Soccer.”
Fink also agrees that it’s time to join the rest of the World when it comes to how soccer matches our officiated in Pennsylvania.
“I have heard different arguments about this in Pennsylvania,” said Fink. “But, I don’t think the rest of the World is wrong on this one.”
IMPROVEMENTS HAVE COME IN MANY FACETS (SAFETY, YOUTH DEVELOPMENT, COACHING EDUCATION)
Player safety is also something that continues to be at the forefront of coaches, school officials, referees and the WPIAL.
“One big change that I have noticed over the past 10 years is a player safety issue in regard to concussions,” said Fink, citing the protocol being followed on the field — and even after injuries with regards to recovery process. “Athletic Trainers have become a crucial part of our program and I feel that they do a fantastic job in helping our student athletes.”
As for continuing to grow the game at the youth level and get more kids involved and willing to stick with it, Amos has some ideas for that.
“Before I was High School coach, Dave Tissue, West A(llegheny) girls coach, and I took over the West Allegheny Youth Program,” said Amos. “Our oldest children were very young at the time and we noticed that they were playing 11v11 at under6-under8, that was not the proper way. We put in place a lot of fun games that could be coached by inexperienced parents that the children would have fun playing. Games like pac-man, crab soccer, cowboys and indians, fetch the ball, etc…”
The whole point of these games was to help build up the skill of the kids so they would be better prepared for when they did start playing 11v11 soccer matches.
“These games were not soccer, but involved dribbling, shielding and passing activities,” said Amos. “We also put into place small sided games, 3v3 for u6, 4v4 for u8 and 6v6 for u10 that were being played in Europe at the time. The fields were really small and we promote scoring lots of goals. If a player could score 12-15 goals a game, great. PA West, the governing better of Western PA Soccer, did not have any rules around this level of play yet. We had to train these new parents/players that soccer was fun. We wanted to build a soccer community.”
It was not an easy buy-in for some of the parents and Amos has a story involving one of the father’s of a player and how he did eventually buy-in to this idea.
“One of the dad’s, at our first small-side games said “this is ridiculous, the ball keeps rolling out of bounds, the fields are too small”. We said, “no, the skill will improve and they’ll get better”, that dad, about 10 years later, became one of my assistant coaches after he witnessed both his boys become highly decorated soccer players,” said Amos. “We grew the youth organization from about 100 players to about 400 players. Everything from u5-u10 was played in house and u12-u16 was played in a league made up of local area community teams. We had great numbers and once those first group of players started to hit the middle school and high school ages, we started and continue to win.”
Fink agrees that there needs to be a better system in place to teach the coaches at the recreational level to help kids develop the skills to grow as soccer players.
“We can all benefit from better promotion of youth soccer in our communities,” said Fink. “At the recreational level, I think sometimes it is difficult to get quality coaching. There are some talented athletic kids that are willing to play and compete, however, by the time some of these kids come to high school, they may lack soccer IQ (tactical awareness, decision making, game management, etc.).”
There are some who believe Cup programs are taking away some of the fun of soccer to young players.
“Cup programs are starting to take the players at very young ages (u3),” said Amos. “This is sad and has hurt soccer. With so many Cup teams, the best talent is spread out across too many teams or some good players cannot afford to play Cup. Winning is over emphasized and skill and technique is being lost. The fun has been removed, but the Cup fees continue to rise. Winning does not create good players, have fun and develop skills at a young age and the winning will come. I’ve never seen a college scout at a u8 or u10 soccer game. Our success has come from the youth program, you have to train 30-40 players at each age group to get 10-15 great players at the high school level.”
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM WEST ALLEGHENY & BETHEL PARK BOYS?
“We will be young this year, but we have a lot of highly skilled players,” said Amos. “We have 3 of the top WPIAL players returning as starters, Fletcher Amos, Caleb Miller and Gavin Chappel that will lead our scoring attack and anchor our defense.”
West Allegheny will open up their season at the East-West Tournament over Labor Day Weekend at Highmark Stadium with teams from Mt. Lebanon, Quaker Valley and Eastern Pennsylvania. We’ll have a lot more on that tournament next week, as Pittsburgh Soccer Now plans coverage of the action from Highmark.
As for Bethel Park, Fink says that he likes the camaraderie that they have developed and believes that will carry over to success this season.
“I feel that our major strength this season is our team chemistry,” said Fink. “I enjoy watching how our players get along as the best of friends on and off the pitch.”
Bethel Park will open up their season with home scrimmages against Central Catholic (8/22) and Allderdice (8/27) before opening up the regular season on the road against Shaler Area High School on August 31 at 11:30 am.