As Razorback Past Wanes, War Memorial Stadium’s Soccer Future Should Wax

Arkansas and Michigan became U.S. states during the same year It's time they do something else together,
Arkansas and Michigan became U.S. states during the same year It’s time they do something else together,

A few months ago, more than 100,000 people flooded into the University of Michigan to watch Real Madrid play Manchester United. A U.S. soccer match attendance record was shattered. Given this sport’s now well-proven and inexorable climb up the American sports popularity food chain, why shouldn’t Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium  consider hosting pro or national team soccer matches?

This is the question I recently posed to a few War Memorial officials for an Arkansas Times feature story. I learned they have already begun preliminary discussions with some professional soccer clubs*. A primary obstacle, assistant stadium manager Jerry Cohen told me, is that the stadium field’s four corners, near the goal lines, are appropriate for football but aren’t wide enough for high-level soccer. “We would have to take out a couple rows of seats to make a regulation soccer stadium in there,” stadium manager Charlie Staggs said. “Such a change made to the seats on the east and west sides would cost at least $500,000, he added. “Later on, I think this is a question the commission might want to look at so that we could get some high-profile soccer events in here since soccer is getting so popular now.”

Making this investment and aggressively pursuing elite soccer matches would provide a shot in the arm for War Memorial and the city of Little Rock. The 55,000-person stadium, which just 15 years ago annually hostied three Razorback home games, is now down to one a year. That could well drop to zero after 2018 when its current contract with the UA expires. It needs major sports events to help fill the void more than ever, and soccer is as sure of a bet as a growth industry here as gets. Arkansas’ Hispanic population is quickly growing, and its teenage and young adult sports fans are far more likely than older generations to tune into Premier League soccer along with college football on Saturdays.

War Memorial’s size is a deterrent for the world’s biggest clubs, but for some elite organizations the state’s location should help offset War Memorial’s relatively limited seating.  FC Dallas, a Major League Soccer power, is less than three hours from Arkansas’ border and could significantly expand its fan base in Arkansas with a couple timely pre-season appearances. It helps that one of Arkansas’ brightest soccer talents, Thomas Roberts, trains in FC Dallas’ youth development system. If in a few years the club ultimately signs Roberts – who in September captained a Rush Select team that knocked off a Dutch powerhouse Ajax junior club – then the Little Rock native would spark additional statewide interest.

Similarly, just three hours from the state’s northern border, a $75 million-plus National Training and Coaching Development Center to serve as the home base for the U.S. Soccer Federation and its national teams will be built in the next couple of years. It will also attract top-flight junior teams from across the world. Don’t expect the U.S.’s senior national team to play in Little Rock with so many larger venues available, but a game between college-age junior teams – especially those including the Mexican national program – could still draw 50,000+ to War Memorial.

What do you think? As War Memorial’s Razorback football glory days fade, can futbol help it remain a major sports venue?

* Cohen couldn’t recall the names of the pro soccer clubs or if they were in the MLS or not. Staggs didn’t recall ever preliminary discussions with any soccer clubs.

Holland: Greatest To Never Win a World Title in any Team Sport?

I’ve gotten on a bit of a Netherlands kick lately after finding out one of Arkansas’ best young soccer players will soon have a tryout with that nation’s esteemed Ajax club youth academy. The Dutch have amazed me in their ability to come so close to winning a World Cup yet consistently fail.

They have finished second three times, and tomorrow in a third-place match with Brazil will again have a shot at finishing high. The Dutch have 26 World Cup wins, by far the most by any team to have never finished first. As ESPN announcer Ian Darke said, “they’re the greatest team to have never won a World Cup final.”

Hard to argue.

But what happens if we compare Holland’s success/lack thereof to the best (of the rest) from all major team sports? Are there other national teams out there who have been just as consistent in getting thisclose to winning a world title, but amazingly, mysteriously, fall short of the ultimate prize every single last time?

Yes, it turns out. Here Holland has some serious competition.

There are other national teams awesome at being second place in their respective sports. The U.S. women’s volleyball team grabs all kinds of silver, but they just can’t get over the hump most often called Brazil. Same for France in rugby, where other Southern hemispheric titans lurk.

Below is a list of contenders for my all-sport “Best of the Rest” gold medal. I’ve drawn records from each sport’s biggest four-year competition. These are world championships, Olympics or world cups.

 

France (Rugby) 

Rugby World Cup

# of Competitions: 6

# of 2nd Place Finishes: 3

All-time Wins-Ties-Losses: 30-1-12

Win %*: 70.1%

 

The Netherlands (soccer) 

FIFA World Cup

# of Competitions: 10

# of 2nd Place Finishes: 3

Wins-Ties-Losses since 1974, when Holland starting being good: 26-12-9

Win %: 68%

(All-time Wins-Ties-Losses: 26-12-11 [adding two losses from two World Cups previous to 1974])

 

Continue reading Holland: Greatest To Never Win a World Title in any Team Sport?

Can Arkansas’ Best Young Soccer Players Tap Into Some of that Clint Dempsey Magic?

Thank you, Clint Dempsey.

Thank you for making me look a fool.

Mere hours after I wrote that the U.S. soccer would not win a World Cup until its best players could score with flair and panache, the American forward goes out and pulls off a masterpiece of footwork, leaving multiple Ghanian defenders flailing in his wake as he hit the ball off the far right post and into the history books. The goal, a mere 29 seconds into the U.S.’s 2014 World Cup debut, was the fifth-fastest in the history of the tournament.

It was also very much out of character for our nation, which has traditionally been most adept scoring off set pieces and direct-line sprints to the goal (think Landon Donovan v. Algeria circa 2010). Dempsey’s technical skill with the ball, the way in which he brashly let the ball roll through his feet before juking past two defenders, was the kind of improvisational flair so rarely pulled off by Americans in the World Cup.

Dempsey grew up in a trailer park Nacogdoches, Texas, about an hour
outside of Dallas. He spent his childhood years playing pickup playground soccer against Hispanics, and as a teenager traveled to Dallas to play in more structured league play. This combination of unstructured play and rigorous training – combined with the great coaches and multi-ethnic talent pool of north Texas – proved to be an outstanding incubator of Dempsey’s genius.

Many of Arkansas’ best soccer players have also headed to the Dallas area to develop their talents. One of the most promising young ones is Thomas Roberts, a 13-year-old who like Dempsey honed his talents as a child in daily, unstructured play (in this case, at Little Rock’s Anthony School). As a young teenager, he’s been making frequent 4.5 hour trips to Frisco, Texas, to play with an MLS academy team. That is an advantage players of Dempsey’s generation never had, as I detail in Sporting Life Arkansas:

“Thomas Roberts may already be the most accomplished 13-year-old soccer player in Arkansas history. In four months, the rising eighth-grader will almost certainly be the first to try out for a European club academy that has produced more elite soccer players than any other in the world. He’s been training against teens three years older in the Arkansas Rush program “and could still be considered the best player on both teams,” says Rush technical director Nathan Hunt.

A year and a half ago, Roberts started training in the youngest age level of the FC Dallas youth development system. He has emerged as one of the best players on one of the nation’s best teams in his age group. “He’s a very special player,” says Chris Hayden, Vice President of FC Dallas Youth. “Highly gifted technically and very savvy.” Hayden plans to recommend Roberts to join a pool of players who by late fall will try out for the U-14 U.S. National team.

While Roberts ascends to heights no Arkansans have touched before, the Little Rock native is also playing a part in a major upheaval in the way future American national teams are being trained. His FC Dallas academy began seven years as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a project funded by the game’s national governing body that attempts to emulate the multi-team, age-divided structure of the top European clubs. The change has streamlined and accelerated the progress of the country’s brightest young talents. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different,” Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, told si.com last week. “But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”Thomas Roberts may already be the most accomplished 13-year-old soccer player in Arkansas history. In four months, the rising eighth-grader will almost certainly be the first to try out for a European club academy that has produced more elite soccer players than any other in the world. He’s been training against teens three years older in the Arkansas Rush program “and could still be considered the best player on both teams,” says Rush technical director Nathan Hunt.

A year and a half ago, Roberts started training in the youngest age level of the FC Dallas youth development system. He has emerged as one of the best players on one of the nation’s best teams in his age group. “He’s a very special player,” says Chris Hayden, Vice President of FC Dallas Youth. “Highly gifted technically and very savvy.” Hayden plans to recommend Roberts to join a pool of players who by late fall will try out for the U-14 U.S. National team.

While Roberts ascends to heights no Arkansans have touched before, the Little Rock native is also playing a part in a major upheaval in the way future American national teams are being trained. His FC Dallas academy began seven years as part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a project funded by the game’s national governing body that attempts to emulate the multi-team, age-divided structure of the top European clubs. The change has streamlined and accelerated the progress of the country’s brightest young talents. “Before 2007, [US Soccer] was categorized as a free-for-all—we lacked focus, and everybody’s goals and agendas were so varied and different,” Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer, told si.com last week. “But now everyone’s in line with trying to develop a world-class player.”

For the rest of the article, go here.

First Reunion of the Most Improbable Sports Tour in U.S. History

Before Dallas ever played in in its American league, the Tornadoes went on a half-year whirlwind trip abroad.
Before Dallas ever played in in its American league, the Tornadoes went on a half-year whirlwind trip abroad.

Take the richest sports magnate outside of Jerry Jones Arkansas has ever produced. Add the “most brilliant con man” in American sports history. Then throw in some impressionable young soccer players from Europe.

What you have is a recipe for the strangest, most ambitious soccer tour the world has likely ever seen.

Dallas Tornadoes’ six-month world soccer tour of 1967-68 “consumed 25,000 miles, 19 countries, five continents, 45 games and a serious bite from a family fortune,” the Dallas Morning News’ Kevin Sherrington wrote. That fortune belonged to El Dorado native Lamar Hunt, former owner of the Kansas City Chief and Chicago Bulls and major investor in American professional soccer leagues. 

Hunt and a fast-talking, dubiously credentialed Serbian immigrant from Canada named Bob Kap teamed up to gather 16 young men in Spain, slap “Dallas” on their shirts and send them around the world into some of the most politically charged environments of the late 1960s – Vietnam (including Saigon just before the Tet Offensive erupted), Afghanistan*, India, Iran – anywhere there were tens of thousands of natives willing to cram into a stadium and watch. The overarching goal was to show America could hold its own in soccer. On a smaller scale, Hunt knew this tour featuring mostly subpar soccer players could generate good will toward the city of Dallas even if it lost most of its games (which it did). The city was still trying to emerge from the specter of the Kennedy assassination less than five years before.

The fact that the majority of the young men who made up the Dallas Tornadoes had never actually been to Dallas was beside the point.

Here’s more about their trip, provided by the FC Dallas communications department:

The team began with training camp in Spain in August. After stops in Nice, Istanbul and Athens, the team took a side trip to check out the Acropolis and missed its flight from Athens to Cyprus. The Acropolis trip saved their lives** as their original flight was blown up in mid-air by a bomb, killing 63 people. The target was Cypriot leader General George Grivas, who coincidentally also missed the original flight and was on the second plane with the Tornado. On the tour, the Tornado played in Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, Costa Rica and Honduras. The highest recorded crowd on their travels was 47,000. They played 48 games from Aug. 24, 1967 to March 10, 1968. They returned to Dallas to open their inaugural NASL season on March 30, 1968 against the Houston Stars at Turnpike Stadium in Arlington. 

Tonight, 10 of the 16 players will meet at FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium in Frisco for the first reunion of this team. Many of the players have not seen each other since 1968, said Bobby Moffat, a  Dallas Tornado in the 1970s who is writing a book on the defunct franchise. You’ll likely hear more about their adventures in the near future. The BBC will cover the reunion and a British production company is making a documentary about the trip, said Jan Book, a former Dallas player who went on that whirlwind tour so long ago.

 

 

 * Afghanistan was scheduled as a destination but not followed through with, Sherrington points out. “According to Michael MacCambridge’s Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports, Waters wired his boss from Karachi to say Afghanistan was “a mistake.”

“YOUR REQUEST TO SKIP AFGHANISTAN OKAY,” Hunt wired back.

“PROCEED TO INDIA.”

**Sherrington says this claim may have a touch of apocrypha mixed in with hit. “Unfortunately for the purposes of this story, records indicate flight 284 left Athens at 4:30 a.m. on the 12th. Unless the boys were touring the Acropolis after hours, they were fast asleep when the de Havilland Comet settled at the bottom of the Mediterranean.”

 

 

Proposed Hot Springs Sports Complex Vs. Burns Park

PROPOSED BASEBALL SITE
Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, left, Danny Herring, field supervisor for UMETCO, and David Longinotti, Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission chairman, visit with media, at a closed mine to view a proposed sports complex site off of U.S. Highway 270 about a mile east of Hot Springs on March 27, 2013. Courtesy: WEHCO, Inc.

There has been a recent wellspring of news pieces extolling the benefits of a proposed regional sports complex east of Hot Springs.

The basic idea, espoused by the city’s advertising and promotion commission, is to buy at least 175 acres previously owned by a vanadium mining company (UMETCO) and turn the area off U.S. 270 into a gleaming citadel of youth sports.

How gleaming? Talk is it would be one of the finest sports complexes in the South.

Tentative plans, according to Hot Springs Sentinel Record, include “a signature youth baseball field with ‘spectacular views’ at the top of the site; two multipurpose fields that would accommodate four regulation fields; a ‘fourplex’ youth baseball area that would be the central focus of the complex, with four youth baseball fields; a group gathering area next to a heavily wooded area that could contain soft trails and accommodate mountain biking, interpretive stations, wildlife blinds, day camp activities, small pavilions and picnicking; and a high-point lookout.”

I agree: this sounds awesome. And – wait – it gets even more awesome/new fangle-y.

According to THV 11, this complex would include fields for flag football and lacrosse. Lacrosse? That sport which struggles to attract more than 31 Twitter followers in the state’s largest city? Expect any lacrosse fields to be used much more by lacrosse-saavy Tennesseans and Texans than Arkansans.

The complex would cater to visitors from out of state, after all. It would serve a conduit or these potential tourists to be funneled to nearby activities and sites such as the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a collection of historic markers commemorating the city’s early role in spring training for professional baseball.

Let’s assume the Garland County powers that be get what they want and this regional sports mecca gets underway.

A major question looms: what does it portend for North Little Rock’s Burns Park?

The 1,700-acre park  already includes a few sports complexes which host regional events.

Not to mention a 36-hole golf course, 36-hole disc golf course, soccer complex, tennis, trails, seasonal amusement park, archery range and a dog park.

The Burns Park baseball complex, just completed in 2012,  includes nine fields. Its soccer complex includes 17  irrigated fields, 1,500 parking spaces, tournament lighting on one quadrant, pavilions, 135 acres of preserved wetland, a three-mile hike/bike trail and is home to the UALR women’s soccer team.

It has hosted the nation’s biggest events in youth soccer: the 2006 & 2002 US Youth Soccer Southern Regional Championships as well as the 2008  US Youth Soccer National Championships.

And let’s not forget about the softball complex, which throws some serious heat with:

  • 5-fields
  • 20/30 regular play lighting
  • 30/50 tournament play lighting
  • Three window concession stand
  • Five scorekeeper rooms
  • Sports medicine room
  • Over 1,000 lighted parking spaces with concrete walkways.

If the Hot Springs sports complex is built, will that town’s leaders start locking horns with their NLR counterparts in attempts to attract top regional youth sports tournaments?

Consider that  in 2005 alone, more than 182,000 participants and spectators came to the Burns Park soccer complex. That’s a lot of tourist dollars – money that may soon go to Hot Springs instead of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Alex Carter Joins Archie Goodwin as Next Arkansas Prep Superstar to enroll at Kentucky

Alex Carter is the second central Arkansan prep phenom to choose Kentucky.

Today, Little Rock native Archie Goodwin announced he’s officially entering this summer’s NBA Draft.

No surprise here.

While there was some question whether Kentucky’s leading scorer would leave college after a single season, I doubt there was ever a major question in Goodwin’s mind. When he was a junior in high school, he told me he wanted to a be a one-and-done because it was the best way to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA. While he’s had a far more tumultuous season at UK than anybody expected, I hope he enjoys these upcoming months prepping for the draft.

No doubt, he’s put in plenty of work laying the foundation for a phase in his life in which the term “business decision” is finally applicable in an un-ironic way.

Goodwin received quite a bit of scorn from Arkansas fans when he announced he was choosing Kentucky as the desired platform in the launching of his pro career.

The same cannot be said of Alex Carter, who may the most accomplished female soccer player in the history of the state’s high school sports. Hardly any Razorback fans have heard of the 18-year-old Carter, who burst on to to the scene four years ago as the first Arkansas female to make a national soccer team.

Since then, the 5-5 midfielder has won multiple titles and individual awards at the club level (with the Arkansas Rush) and playing as a junior for Conway High School last season. Carter was so eager to start the next phase of her training that she graduated Conway High early and enrolled at Kentucky – which has twice won the SEC championship – in January.

 Alex Carter, the newest member of the University of Kentucky women’s soccer team, has enrolled early for spring classes, graduating early from Conway High School during the winter intersession to enroll early at the University of Kentucky, it was announced by head coach Jon Lipsitz on Wednesday.

“Alex is a very special technical player,” Lipsitz said. “She has a great ability to play in the midfield and we have even talked about her playing some center back also because of how vital it is to have center backs who can set play with our style. We are very excited to have her come early. She felt that she was ready, and we felt that she was ready also.” – UK press release

Carter will start her first season this fall.

It’s been said that many Arkansans loathe Goodwin right now for snubbing the Hogs, but they will embrace him again if he goes on to become a champion at the NBA level and gives back to Arkansas (exhibit A: Keith Jackson).

Women’s soccer isn’t nearly as popular as men’s basketball, and so few Arkansans know who Alex Carter is, never mind care about her college destination. BUT, if in 2015 or 2019, she shows up on an American national team again – this time right before the World Cup – you’d better believe Arkansas will know who she is, and in a hurry.

That may be the first time Carter is asked in public why she decided to roll with the LadyCats and not the LadyBacks.

How did Springdale soccer end up ranked as the nation’s 13th-best team?

Things are looking up, Arkansas prep soccer scene. But not THAT up. - courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

At first glance, it seems awesome:  little ol’ Arkansas’ very own Springdale High boys soccer team is ranked as the 13th-best team in the nation. At second glance, it gets a little less awesome: at the top of the poll, you’ll find the ranking pertains only to “Spring Boys” and that the #1 ranked team is something called “Snohomish, Wash.”

What, exactly, is going on here?

Welcome to the unique world of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s rankings. This major national association divvies up the nation’s teams in a few ways – first, by season. Texas schools, for instance, play in the winter. Arkansas plays in the spring. Secondly, the NSCAA divides the nation into five regions:

Region I-South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia

Region II-Alabama and Georgia

Region III-Iowa, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming

Region IV-Arkansas and Oklahoma

Region V-Alaska, California, Washington

Schools are ranked within each of those regions primarily based on win-loss record. The NSCAA then stiches together its Top 20 poll almost purely based on rankings within the five regions. The first five spots of the Top 20 are reserved for the five No. 1 teams, each from a different region. Spots 6-10 in the Top 20 are reserved for the five No. 2 teams from each region, spots 11-15 for the No. 3s and so on.

Continue reading How did Springdale soccer end up ranked as the nation’s 13th-best team?

Salt Bowl: Higher Ed (ition) – UALR-Benton vs. UALR-Bryant

In a previous post, I looked at some 2011’s biggest sports stories … by imagining their implications in the year 2020.
Here are more predictions:
Just wait.
3. In 2011, the Benton campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced plans for its first four-year program. The school says it’s starting small by only allowing 30 students to initially pursue the new E-commerce degrees, but talk still surfaces of building a new UALR-Benton campus.In 2020 … UALR-Benton and the brand-new UALR-Bryant announce plans to start football programs.
Proceeds from the annual football game between the teams, dubbed the “Salt Bowl: Higher Ed(ition),” are expected to fund 90% of the nascent athletic departments. Boosters of UALR athletics lament this as the first documented case of satellite campuses starting football programs before the main campus. Boosters of UALR-Benton and UALR-Bryant begin seriously examining the possibility of preserving their rivalry through football if a University of Arkansas – Saline County is formed.

UCA Bears nearly beat one of nation’s best soccer teams

Louisville Athletics | Jeff Reinking

UCA men’s soccer team nearly toppled national power Louisville on Sunday.

One of the enduring hot topics of this college football season will be SEC expansion, and which team(s) may soon be joining the conference assuming the Aggies get in.

TV market, academic reputation, strength of football and basketball programs are all major criteria by which this next SEC members will be chosen. While soccer program strength isn’t a major factor, it’s still interesting to imagine what would happen if powerhouse teams from the Big East or ACC joined the SEC. Would the addition of a Maryland, Louisville, North Carolina State or North Carolina make the SEC more likely to sanction men’s soccer competition among its members?

If so, teams like Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama would likely have the initial advantage, considering those states’ large number of elite high school players relative to other SEC states and their U.S. Development Academy club teams.

At first glance, it seems the Arkansas Razorbacks’ hypothetical men’s soccer team would suffer from the relative lack of talent available in a small state like Arkansas. Its key would be capitalizing on the large number of talented players in Oklahoma and north Texas.

But here in real life world, there is only one Division I men’s soccer program in the state, and its success is in part determined by how many of those very same players it can pluck. UCA soccer is the southern-most team in the Missouri Valley Conference, one of the mid-major soccer conferences in the nation. Although only in its second full year of Division I, the Bears are slowly evolving into a regionally competitive program.

On Sunday, UCA traveled to Kentucky and lost 3-2 to a Louisville team ranked #2 in the nation, according to Soccer America  and College Soccer News. It was the second highest-ranked team any UCA sports program had ever faced, following a college baskeball game against #1 Kansas early in the 2009-10 season. UCA lost 94-44 that night and only led for two minutes of the game.

The soccer Bears led most of the match against Louisville, but had to play a man short for the final 26 minutes after Stephen Williams’ ejection following his second yellow card. The Cardinals scored with 56 seconds left.

Still, this is a major local soccer story. And it of course got swallowed by football coverage in local media outlets.

Nearly three thousand people watched the match, which more than doubles the previous attendance record for any UCA men’s match, according to UCA spokeperson Josh Goff. He added: “This might be topped soon, since we play at Creighton on Oct. 29 and they’re averaging about 4800 in their 6000-seat stadium in their two home games this season.”