There will be one last chance on Saturday for this year’s crop of up-and-coming soccer talent to compete as the Premier Development Soccer League wraps up its season.
Since May, some of the nation’s top collegiate soccer players have competed as the Evergreen Hammers, taking on other mid-Atlantic teams while continuing to hone their skills through the summer with an eye to joining the professional ranks in Major League Soccer or in Europe.
Ian Bishop and James Meara are the coaches who signed on to help the players achieve those goals, and they are part of a broader effort at the Evergreen Sportsplex to improve the area’s youth soccer offerings.
Both bring years of experience to the task—not just playing the sport on a large stage, but also recognizing and training talented players to reach the next level of competition.
Bishop played for West Ham United and Man City in Europe’s Premier League. Meara played for Watford FC and the Doncaster Rovers. They came to the states to develop soccer talent and, starting last year, signed on at Evergreen to lead its academy-style youth program.
Bishop and Meara said the first season for the Hammers has been challenging, particularly since the group is playing together for the first time and has few opportunities to practice together. The team has compiled a 2-6-2 record with fiour games remaining. In the home finale on Saturday, the Hammers take on the New York Red Bulls starting at 8 p.m. [Admission to the game is free.] The season wraps up July 17 in New Jersey.
Going to the Game
Evergreen FC v. New York Red Bulls
8 p.m., Saturday, June 25
Evergreen Sportsplex, 19623 Evergreen Mills Road south of Leesburg
While they enjoy the challenge of coaching the college-age players in the PDL system, Bishop and Meara were drawn to Evergreen because of its focus on developing youth talent. The quality of the training facilities and the center’s four FIFA-certified fields added to the attraction.
Bishop is pushing for fundamental improvements in the U.S. soccer system—both at the youth level and in college. In general, he said youth soccer teams are too focused on winning trophies and often hinder top players from honing their skills against tougher competition. And college players are missing out on prime years when they could be playing professionally—starting in their teens.
The collegiate system doesn’t help the best soccer players move to the professional level as it does in other sports, Bishop said. “It’s become more of a hindrance and I think the professional clubs have started to recognize that. Twenty-two or 23 years old is a bit late to be starting a professional career,” he said. “Nobody’s saying it can’t be done. It’s just the four to five years that you’ve missed—that is a lot of knowledge that has been left away from you.”
He also sees the emphasis of youth leagues as missing the mark when it comes to developing talent. “Everybody wants to play in a league. Everybody wants to win games. Everybody wants to go to work and say how good their child was at the weekend,” he said.
At Evergreen, Bishop and Meara are advocating a different approach.
“We’re saying the emphasis should be on technical development at the younger ages and not so much on bringing a trophy home from the tournament. That’s nice for the kids to do that, but ultimately if you want to develop players to a professional or collegiate level, then you have to find out what’s important,” Bishop said. “We want the sport to grow here. We don’t want to be seen as shooting it down all the time. It is growing. It could just grow at a faster rate if things were adjusted at the youth level.”
While Evergreen’s focus is on youth sports, the PDL team gets notice, both from professional scouts in the stands at games—some 70 percent of Major League Soccer recruits come from PDL teams—and from the youth players who get to interact with the college players and gain an understand of the opportunities the sport offers.
Carolyn Dobson, Evergreen’s vice president of marketing, sees the impact the PDL player has on her son, Tyler, who plays on the U15 team. “He sees these guys out here. He sees, that could be me if I put in the work,” she said. “To see the career path, and to see that people who are from Loudoun County and who are going to the high schools that these kids are going to, is important.”
As Evergreen develops its PDL program, Bishop and Dobson said the community will be getting to know the players better, not just at youth camps, but also helping with charities and community events.