This week, 12 youth club soccer teams from three Massachusetts clubs will descend on Westfield, Ind., for a national tournament featuring thousands of players from all over the country.
By no means, however, is this just some recreational affair. The teams’ success is the culmination of the time put in by countless people who devote large chunks of their lives to soccer.
The tournament is the National Premier Leagues Finals and the organizations are the New England Futbol Club (NEFC) and FC Stars. The NPL is a league under US Club Soccer.
NEFC has 145 teams from Under-8 to Under-20 and FC Stars has 85 teams from Under-9 to Under-18. Both nonprofits, NEFC and FC Stars also employ full-time and part-time staff to keep operations running.
Tournaments such as the NPL Finals are what the clubs strive for.
“People do this because they love the game, and it’s growing,” said Ed Kelly, the U-14 to U-18 boys’ director of coaching for NEFC and the head men’s soccer coach at Boston College. “You can see by the passion that’s throughout the country.”
NEFC is sending a record six “Elite” teams to the NPL Finals, including its boys’ U-17 team and its girls’ U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16, and U-18 teams. FC Stars is sending four “NPL” teams: U-13 boys and U-14, U-15, and U-16 girls. Global Premier Soccer Massachusetts is sending two squads: U-14 and U-15.
Those teams from NEFC and FC Stars reached the NPL Finals by qualifying through their respective regional NPL leagues. NEFC’s six teams have a combined record of 62-2-4 and FC Stars’ four teams are 70-6-6.
“It’s a great opportunity now to not kind of rest on your laurels and assume you’ve achieved your goal,” said Chris Hamblin, the U-10 to U-18 girls’ director of coaching for NEFC. “We now got to set another goal, which is to complete the journey and try and take home some national championships.”
Reasons for success vary. Hamblin and Kelly mentioned NEFC’s regional model. NEFC has four regions: Metro North, Metro South, Central, and Southeast. The regions cover Massachusetts and stretch to Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
Hamblin said the teams in each region operate somewhat independently at the younger age groups. Then, at the U-13 level, the best talent from each region is pooled into the club’s “Elite” and “Premier” teams.
“By pooling the talent there, we’re able to bring together some of the most competitive players that we’ve had access to over the years,” Hamblin said.
FC Stars also has a regional model. Plus the club has is its own playing complex in Lancaster that was completed late last year.
“That really helps,” said Jason Dewhurst, the director of coaching for FC Stars. “Kind of, our teams can go and train whenever they want, and our coaches have the luxury of doing that.”
Players practice throughout the week and then play on the weekends, sometimes on the road.
Hamblin said NEFC players are expected to make club play one of their top commitments.
“We don’t say you cannot do other sports or activities,” Hamblin said. “But we do say that this needs to be your priority sport or activity. Because when there are conflicts, it’s very hard for us to manage when players are missing.”
For players such as Brandon Girard of Beverly, who plays for NEFC’s U-17 Elite boys’ team, making practice means an hour-plus commute to Marlborough. That limits him to just one practice a week, but it doesn’t take away from his experience.
“All I can say is I love it,” said Girard, who’s in his first year with NEFC. “I’m coming back next year and it’s just, the atmosphere of the team, the players, the coaching, the parents, it’s just all like we’re all one family.”
The NPL tournament runs Thursday through Monday and will feature 151 teams total. When play opens, NEFC and FC Stars will get to find out how the time, effort, and resources put in ultimately pay off.
“It’s such an emotional moment in our year,” said Grace Keith of Lancaster, who plays for the FC Stars U-15 NPL girls’ team. “And we think forward to these games the whole entire year. And this is what we work for. It’s our goal, it’s our main goal.”
This story was updated on July 13 to include the U-14 and U-15 teams from Global Premier Soccer Massachusetts.