FORT WAYNE – It was the most modest of endeavors, back in the day when American kids and soccer went together like hot dogs and asparagus.
I remember when we started, we were probably coaching 2,000 kids a year, says Michael Lovelace of Challenger Sports British Soccer, which has been conducting youth soccer camps all over North America for the last two decades.
Now, 20 years down the road, we’re at 150,000 or so, Lovelace says.
Call it the calculus of a phenomenon, in this case the phenomenon of soccer-as-American-staple. The kids who played 20 years ago are the parents whose kids play today, and there are so many of them out there picking the top corner and back-heeling deftly that Challenger Sports is now the largest soccer camp provider in the United States and Canada, operating out of 15 regional offices and employing 1,100 coaches from the United Kingdom to staff 3,500 British Soccer Camps every summer.
One of them, hosted by the Parkview YMCA, runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday this week. The camp is open to boys and girls ages 7 through 11 and the cost is $170.
The YMCA camp will be primarily recreational in nature, but will feature unique touches such as Camp World Cup, a daily tournament designed to teach the players about life, customs and traditions of other countries.
As part of it, the campers will be asked to make up soccer chants, wear the team colors and display the flags of their country, and learn as much as they can about the country they represent.
We do camps for ages 3 all the way to 18, and there are different camps, says Lovelace. We’ve got competitive camps, recreational camps, team camps and high school camps. This one is run through the YMCA and it’s that kind of level. We do camps specific to the organizations that we work with.
Lovelace, 25, has been involved with Challenger for 5 1/2 years. He began as a coach while on break from college in England, where he began playing when he was 6 years old, advanced to semipro ball and then to college ball.
These days he lives in Chicago and is the company’s regional director for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and western Ontario.
I had the opportunity to come work here and to help run and develop the company in this area of the country, and I’ve been here ever since, he says.
It’s been long enough to see the game gain first a toehold and then a stranglehold in some parts of a country that didn’t come to it organically.
We started out as a very small company, and the last six or seven years that’s the point where we’ve had a drastic increase in the number of camps and kids we see on a year-to-year basis, Lovelace says. I think really soccer kicked off after you guys hosted the World Cup (in 1994). Now it just keeps on growing and growing each year, and I think the sport over here in general is getting more and more popular. Players are coming out of here and playing in Europe now. So, yes, in that aspect, it has grown drastically in the last 20 years.
To the benefit of both the game and everyone out to spread its gospel.