Two days at the State Cup prove that Alabama is gaining ground in the Southeast when it comes to exceptional soccer and increasingly skillful players.
It’s mid-morning on Saturday, November 12, and games
are well under way at the Alabama Soccer Association State Cup in Foley, Alabama. The action is taking place for the first time at the Foley Sports Tourism Complex, a state-of-the-art, 16-field facility just a stone’s throw from the beaches of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny day with high temperatures in the low 80s. In other words, it’s perfect soccer weather (a fact this writer is certainly thankful for as Thanksgiving Day approaches).
The weekend’s action consists mostly of semi-final games featuring teams in Division I, although there are a fair number of Division II games on the schedule as well. The level of play is, frankly, stunning. Creative ball handling, crisp passing, tight ball control, and amazing goalkeeping are in great supply. By the end of the weekend, champions will be crowned in over a dozen boys and girls divisions. While it’s a wonderful opportunity for these young players to experience ultimate victory, it’s also a chance for the state of Alabama to display its soccer talent for all to see.
“I think the intensity of the games has been quite impressive,” says James Beeston, an assistant coach with Spring Hill College in Mobile. Following a college career at Sienna College, the native of Newcastle-Under-Lyme, England, is in his second year as an assistant at Spring Hill. As Spring Hill’s recruiting coordinator, he’s one of the dozens of college coaches who made the trip to Foley to check out the talent, particularly the older boys in Division I. Even Beeston says he believes Alabama players still have some work to do to catch up with the rest of the country, but he also says he likes what he’s seeing at the State Cup. “I’ve only been here two years, but can see the level improving. I think some of these teams have shown some good things.
“The referees are letting the games go, so it’s been quite physical. But on the technical side, there have been some quite good pieces of play from a few decent players,” Beeston says. “The physical part of the game is what separates kids from high school and club soccer from the college game. If you can handle the physical nature, then that will help you in the college game.”
The biggest takeaway heard from almost anyone with knowledge of soccer is how good Alabama players are today as compared to just a few short years ago, and not just in Division I, but Division II as well. “I think the level has improved tremendously,” says Jon Vansword, head coach of the Birmingham United SA 03 Premier squad. A former standout at Berry High School (now Hoover High School) in the late 1980s, and a UAB Blazer from 1990-93, Vansword has seen first-hand how soccer in Alabama has grown over the last 25 years.
“Even though we’re still trying to catch up in some ways with Georgia and Tennessee in the Southeast, we’re making some big strides,” he says. “The organizations are providing much better leadership, and the directors of coaching are hiring great coaches — whereas when I was a kid, we were lucky to find a dad who even knew what soccer was and was willing to coach.”
Vansword’s BUSA squad lost a heartbreaker to Vestavia Steamers 03 White. The game was very competitive and hard-fought from the opening whistle. BUSA took the lead early on but Vestavia clawed their way back, scoring on a pair of incredible goals to take the lead 2-1 in the first half. Each team continued to battle for control, but it was Vestavia who prevailed in the end to win the state championship.
Neither coach could have been more proud of his players.
“It’s really tremendous,” says Vestavia head coach Ken Headley. “I’ve had this age group for three years, and when I first got them that initial season was really tough. But last year we actually made it to second place, and this year we made it to first. It’s just a great accomplishment for these guys.”
With over 25 years of coaching experience, including as head coach at Judson College, Headley says the competitive environment and the top-notch facilities in Foley will only help the sport grow exponentially in the future. “As everyone knows, in this state our rivalry with BUSA is amazing and the BUSA. (Vansword) and I have been coaching against each other for years. It’s such a great victory today because of the rivalry and how far this team has come. That’s what I’m most excited about is what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
“It was a great battle. I wanted it for my guys, but it was a great battle,” Vansword adds. “That’s what we want, to provide them with opportunities to compete in environments like this. That’s when they’re really going to improve — in pressure environments and meaningful situations to compete.”
With so much good soccer being played it’s impossible to mention every game and/or every team in action at the State Cup. With so many teams in action, the stories practically write themselves. However, one of more intense rivalries of the weekend was the championship game of the U16 Division II girls featuring BUSA 01 Select against Lady Fusion 01.
“It feels good to be back in the championship game,” says Bella Crim, a defender with BUSA. “It’s crazy. Unreal, because it takes a lot of hard work. We’ve definitely grown since the beginning of the season.”
By the time the championship game was set, the two teams were well acquainted with one another. In 2016 alone, BUSA and Fusion had played three times and become familiar with each other’s tendencies. If the past was any indication, the championship game was going to be a dogfight. “I’m really ready for it,” says Bess Landgren, an attacking midfielder and occasional goalkeeper for BUSA. “We’re all going to go to bed early and going to eat well. It’s going to be good.
“They’re aggressive. They’re really fast and they’re kind of mean,” Landgren adds. “But, if we stay humble and keep our skill, we can beat them.”
“We try to be as physical as possible, but clean,” says Hallie Kate Smith, a standout on the Fusion squad. Based out of Gadsden, Fusion’s players come largely from blue-collar northeast Alabama communities such as Oxford, Jacksonville, and Gadsden. Despite being one of the stronger girls teams in the state with a couple of state titles, she says her team doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. “I feel like we’re definitely the underdog. We’re rednecks. We don’t live in mansions and we come out here and we kick butt.”
“I think when we come out here, people underestimate us,” adds Savannah Knighton. “We kind of take them by surprise.”
The game did not disappoint. Both teams fought hard, displaying creative ball handling, expert passing, and — as promised — physical play. While each team had opportunities to score, neither team managed to crack the opponent’s defense with a goal by the end of the regulation and overtime.
The state championship was going to be settled over penalty kicks.
Fusion and BUSA each had chances to put the game away in the first round of penalty shots. However, a combination of nervous tension and fantastic goalkeeping kept the game at a draw. It was then down to sudden death penalty kicks. For the first three rounds of shots, the teams kept pace with one another — a goal for a goal, miss for a miss, etc. Finally, on the ninth set of shots — almost two hours after the opening whistle — BUSA put one on the right upper 90 following a Fusion miss. Final score: BUSA 1, Fusion 0.
The great sportscaster Howard Cosell once said, “The ultimate victory in competition is derived from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best and that you have gotten the most out of what you had to give.”
That, dear readers, is what the Alabama State Cup is all about.
Q&A: Don Staley
Sports Director City of Foley
Even though the Foley Sports Tourism Complex still has that ’new car smell,’ the new athletic complex on Alabama’s Gulf Coast has already developed a solid reputation around the country. With 16 full-size, 120×75-yard fields, including a 1,000-seat championship stadium, the complex has hosted 60 events, including the Sun Belt Conference Men’s and Women’s Soccer Tournament. In November, the complex hosted the Alabama Soccer Association State Cup for the first time, inviting hundreds of youth players from around the state, and their friends and families, to experience the sport in a world-class setting.
The man behind the scenes making sure everything runs smoothly is Don Staley, the Sports Director for the City of Foley. He and his small staff work diligently to ensure the facility looks great, and the fields are smooth as a baby’s you-know-what. Staley also happens to have an extensive background in soccer. He was head men’s and women’s soccer coach at Radford University for 14 years before re-establishing the women’s soccer program at The University of Alabama in 1994. As he buzzed around the complex on a souped-up golf cart, I had a chance to catch up with Don and ask him a few questions about the Foley Sports Tourism Complex, the state of the game, and soccer’s future in Alabama.
How did you get involved with the Foley Sports Tourism Complex?
I got out of coaching after 25 years, retired at Alabama and started a sports commission in Tuscaloosa. The day before the (2011) tornado, the city of Tuscaloosa approved a $20 million sports complex. The next day was the tornado, and it just tabled everything. This project came forward and I jumped on it. It gave me 15 challenge fields, 125 yards long by 75 yards wide, and we have a championship stadium that has already hosted the Sun Belt Conference tournament on. We’ve booked over 60 events already. The event center will be open Memorial Day weekend. That’ll be cheerleading, dance, and volleyball and basketball. It’s no-miss. It’s going to be amazing.
How will this complex help grow soccer throughout our state?
Around the Southeast, people already know about it, but in the next 24 to 48 months, you’re going to see us land even larger events, because of the attention. I think that all lends well to soccer around the state, whether it’s the eyeballs of the locals down here that see better play, or it’s just the kids around the state that are going to come here.
What gives this complex a competitive advantage over other sports facilities?
I think that what we’re seeing right now is almost like an arms race out there with the building of these facilities fast and furious. I think what separates us from others is not only the beach, but Tanger outlet mall, the location, and the weather, but also continuous fields. Fifteen of them right in one area with a championship stadium 100 yards away. I think this will really allow for us to go after some larger events, which is going to help soccer in general. We’ve had a lot of success. Bringing the State Cup here is a feather in our cap.
What are some of the events you’re currently bidding on for the future?
We just put a bid in for the 2018 and 2019 NAIA Championships. We’re also in discussions with the USL (United Soccer League) right now. They’ll look to take those discussions back up after Thanksgiving and we’ll look to do a site visit and get them down here, kick the tires and we’ll see if this might be something that would be doable. Of course, you’ve got to have financial backing and investors and what not, so we’ll see.
THE STATE OF THE GAME
Q&A with Tom Condone Executive Director Alabama Soccer Association
Alabama Soccer Association (ASA) Executive Director Tom Condone was a busy man in November, rushing around the Foley Sports Tourism Complex during the ASA State Cup. With champions crowned in close to two dozen age groups in Division I and Division II, Condone had a lot on his plate ensuring the tournament ran smoothly during two consecutive weekends of play. Despite the busy schedule, Condone took a few minutes to talk about the tournament, the level of play, and the future of soccer in Alabama.
What impact do you think this facility will have on soccer throughout our state?
I think for the state of Alabama to have a facility down in this area just shows how this sport is growing. And I believe that this state — if you look at the all the complexes that we have, such as Jack Allen in Decatur, the SHAC in Birmingham, the Montgomery YMCA which has a 10-field complex, and now Foley — we’re one of the few states that has 10-plus field complexes like we do all the way down the I-65 corridor. So, to have a 16-field complex in this area by the beach certainly bodes well for us and the parents as well.
Who are some of the clubs and/or teams to watch for this weekend here in Foley?
First and foremost, I think everybody that is underneath the ASA umbrella has done a fantastic job. When it comes to larger populations — Huntsville Football Club and United Soccer Club in Huntsville; Birmingham United, and Vestavia Hills in the Birmingham area; Capital City out of Montgomery; Mobile United, and Gulf Coast Rangers down South — I think these are the clubs that are normally competing for a championship at Division I and Division II levels. There are certainly other clubs that have done a very good job, but those are the larger ones around the state.
How has the level of play among Alabama’s youth improved over the last few years?
I don’t think there’s any question that the level of play has improved. I think in large part, number one, the sheer number of players playing. We have many more players participating in this game than we did 10-15 years ago, and also the clubs. They’ve become much more sophisticated. They have full-time staff, and I think they have done a very good job trying to develop those players from the recreation level all the way up to the competitive level.
What do you believe has led to the vast improvements in skill level and team play?
The coaches within those clubs have done a very, very good job of teaching these players. I also think the growth of the sport at a professional level is important. We’re seeing more and more games on TV and I think these kids are trying to emulate the professionals. Ten years ago, we had half as many soccer games as you do now, so it’s great for these kids not only to play the game, but to also go back home and watch these kids and try to mirror the skills and players not only in MLS, but also globally.
I also think we are trying to play soccer the way it should be played. I understand there are results and championships to be had, however, they’ve done a very good job of trying to play the game the right way and looking at it from a global standpoint in terms of not only how the foreign leagues play but also the national teams.
What is ASA doing to grow the sport in less populated and underserved areas of the state?
We have worked very hard to try to get boys and girls clubs, YMCAs, and the parks and recs underneath our umbrella so we can educate them appropriately, not only through coaching education courses but also parent education and skills for the players. That has helped us because now we’ve been able to kind of broaden the area in terms of players and their knowledge of the game, but also coaches and parents. So I think that, for me, is huge. I think that’s the future of soccer. Tapping into those underserved communities not only in urban populations but rural areas as well.