While it might not have the sprawling municipalities of New York or Massachusetts (Vermonts total population is roughly equal to Bostons), there is nonetheless a thriving youth soccer scene, a number of well-established and regionally competitive premier clubs, and a few college programs making an impact on the national level.
Throw in a few mens and womens leagues, an ambitious amateur league, and a PDL team, and you have a decent-sized slice for every section of the states soccer pie.
Almost 40 years ago there was little in the way of youth soccer in Vermont.
Middle school was most kids first exposure to soccer, and then of course high school, says Les Johnson, founder of New Horizons In Sports, a soccer retail outlet in Williston, Vt.
When he formed the Essex Junction Recreational Program in 1972, it was the first of its kind in Vermont, at least to Johnsons knowledge. There really was no youth soccer whatsoever, he said.
Not long after forming Vermonts first recreational league, similar programs began sprouting up in towns all over Chittenden County (which includes some of Vermonts biggest citiesBurlington, Colchester, Essex, etc.) Soon the town recreational programs were competing against one another. The development of the town team was a natural evolution, says Johnson. It was all about getting kids more experience.
Truly an icon of Vermont soccer, Johnson has had a hand in many aspects of the states soccer scene. In addition to coaching the Essex High School boys program in 1970, he has served as head coach of the Champlain College mens soccer program (1978-81), head coach of the Saint Michaels College mens team (1982-96), founded Goal to Goal Soccer school - one of Vermonts longest running soccer camps (which sadly just held its final camp last summer) - and currently runs one of the better-known soccer gear retail stores in the state.
He was also Vermonts first USSF A licensed coach. He helped start the Vermont State Select team, which became Vermont ODP, and played a part in the organizing of the Vermont Soccer Association (VSA).
What does Johnson think are the biggest differences between then and now? The level of play has risen significantly, he said. There are better players, and more of them.
With that increase in talent, however, Johnson also notes an increase in expectations, usually on the part of parents. Some expectations are unrealistic. People forget our area code and become big fish in the little pond, he said.
The Youth Game
Vermont currently boasts 10,000 registered youth soccer players. A modest number compared to its more-populated neighbors, it still does not account for the unregistered players in the state.
There are a lot of rec programs in Vermont that do not register with us, said Meg Munson, Executive Director for VSA.
Munson has served in the position for 11 years, and in that time she sees the states decision to mandate small-sided (8v8) U12 play over full 11v11 as one of the biggest changes.
The question being asked was, Why is the US so far behind other countries in soccer? U12s playing full-field was one of the reasons, said Munson.
This change - which affects U12 league, tournament, and State Cup play in Vermont - has resulted in some competitive play out of the U12 teams representing Vermont at the last two Region 1 national championships in Brunswick, Maine. We had two teams in the semi-finals, Munson adds.
Another important change that has come about in the youth game is a shift happening at the town and rec level.
It used to be parents who had no soccer experience coaching the kids, said Munson. Now were getting into a generation of parents who have played the game, and some at a high level.
This has certainly contributed to the overall elevation in the talent of youth soccer players in the game, but it may also be to the detriment of the premier clubs in the state.
Vermont is a unique place. It is filled with small towns with a strong sense of community. The pride that comes with being born and raised in such a town is carried into the town soccer programs, where those same parent-coaches strive to keep teams intact through the years, and are reluctant to let players go to be involved with year-round premier clubs.
Although its a natural progression for the best players to move to a club team, some town teams get possessive of their players, said Munson. They want to build a team and keep them together into their high school years, so they can hopefully win a championship.
In the eyes of the state association, this disconnect between rec, town and premier club organizations is one that must be patched in order for Vermont to start raising players who can make an impact on a regional level with the states Olympic Development Program (ODP).
College and Beyond
Peter Kim doesnt suffer from a shortage of interested players. As head coach of the Middlebury College womens soccer program, he sees the state of Vermont as one of the reasons players want to come to Middlebury.
Vermont is such a desirable place to live, said Kim. Its a beautiful state with a lot of outdoor opportunities.
The recent success of a few of the states collegiate soccer programs would suggest that something is attracting better players to Vermont. In 2007, the Middlebury mens soccer team won its first Division III NCAA national championship, and in the same year the University of Vermont men advanced to the second round of the Division I NCAA tournament (their last appearance was in 2000) and took America East Championship honors. Two other Division III schools - Norwich University and Castleton State College - also made recent trips to the NCAA tournament.
The quantity of Vermont players who have the quality to play in college is increasing, says James Franklin, Saint Michaels College mens soccer head coach, speaking to the tendency of Vermont college coaches to be doing more recruiting in-state. In the local club scene, players are taking the game more seriously, and theyre committing themselves year-round.
Franklin, who has also served as assistant coach for Champlain College mens soccer and UVMs womens soccer as well as head coach of Norwich University - all Vermont schools - sees the flip-side to the Kims perspective, suggesting that many prospective college soccer players might see Vermont as isolated and remote, particularly players outside of New England. The key, according to Franklin, is to sell one of Vermonts greatest qualities: winter sports.
If you can balance the social scene and allow players to ski and snowboard, it can be an attractive place to come, Franklin said.
For the college player looking for summer competition or the graduate of the youth program looking for continued soccer, theres a few mens and womens leagues throughout the state. There are also the Vermont Amateur Soccer League (VASL) and the Vermont Voltage, which has both a mens team in the PDL and a womens team (the Lady Voltage) in the W-League of the USL.
Kim, one of the founders of VASL, sees the league as an opportunity for adults and youth players alike.
The league was set up to answer a larger cultural issue in the state, said Kim. We wanted to connect the soccer-knowledgeable adults in the state with the kids, and give the kids a chance to watch high-level soccer apart from the college game, which just competes in the fall.
The league now offers college players from the states many colleges a chance to stay in Vermont over the summer and compete at a high level to keep their skills honed.
Everyone involved in soccer in Vermont agree that the state has a ways to go to close the gap between it and the stronger soccer states in the region. But with folks like Les Johnsons, Meg Munson, and Peter Kim leading the cause, that gap is sure to close.
Ben Hardy is an assistant coach and former player for the Middlebury College men's soccer team, and director of coaching for Far Post Soccer Club, also in Vermont
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