Walk by a myriad local bars, breweries and restaurants this week and you’ll likely spot faces glowing green reflections from TVs broadcasting soccer matches 5,000 miles away. Meanwhile, Loudoun’s youngest soccer fans are sweating it out at sold-out camps on fields throughout the county.
If you haven’t spotted signs like these that Loudoun is becoming a soccer mecca, you will soon.
Youth leagues have been popular in the county for decades, but moves within the past year by two major soccer brands to settle in Loudoun indicate that local youth leagues may be just child’s play compared to what’s to come.
Early last year, FC Barcelona partnered with Sporting Global to launch FCBEscola Northern Virginia out of Evergreen Sportsplex just south of Leesburg. Now in its second season and under the new name of Barça Academy Northern Virginia, the program is enrolling more than 300 players, ages 6 to 18.
Franc Carbo, with Barça Academy, told young players at a summer camp there that the training they’re getting here in Loudoun is the same as the training the professionals get in Barcelona. “It’s a huge opportunity. Learn as much as you can, work hard, and more importantly, meet new friends and have fun.”
Shortly after Barça Academy set up shop, D.C. United announced plans to build a 5,000-seat stadium and training facilities for the professional soccer team at Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park, also near Leesburg. When the stadium opens early next year, it will also be home to a second-division professional men’s soccer team, called Loudoun United FC, and four soccer fields that will serve young players enrolled in an in-house youth academy.
Players in Loudoun, starting with toddlers ping-ponging up and down the field, will soon have an opportunity to take the game as far as their talent will allow, even to the World Cup, said Adam Behnke, chief operating officer at Loudoun United FC.
“Bringing the United soccer league to Loudoun County makes the entire pathway complete,” he said. “From the time they step on the field at a young age, to getting to the MLS, they have every single category within the soccer journey that they can fulfill, right here in their backyard.”
League leaders say the U.S. is past due for these kinds of programs to raise up the next generation of pros. The U.S. men’s team missed the cut for this year’s World Cup for the first time since 1986, losing 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago.
Juan Carlos Garcia, a Spanish native who oversees Barça Academy Northern Virginia, said people are too hard on the U.S. for not making it into this year’s World Cup. He said that European countries have been developing players for decades and the sport is engrained into the culture there. But it’s still practically in its infancy here.
“There’s a lot of room for growth here. We think there’s talent here, and the way we develop players can definitely help out and increase the possibility of success,” Garcia said. And he sees D.C. United’s presence as only complementing Barça Academy’s goal. “Any group that wants to come in and help develop players, and help the players themselves, is good. That’s one reason we chose Loudoun—because there’s a great number of players here.”
John Nash, CEO and founder of Sporting Global, who helped bring Barça Academy Northern Virginia, said finding success on the world stage must start with breaking down how athletes are developed here.
American athletes focus too much on improving their size and speed and not enough on technical skills, he said. He pointed to Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who, with a 5-foot, 7-inch frame, is considered the best player in the world because of how he handles the ball.
“Players start with us at 6 years old, and we know how to develop them to be the best technical players possible by the time they’re 18,” Nash said.
Barça Academy isn’t focused on growing young players into professionals, he added. “Our mission is to help families raise good kids—period. And we do that by teaching our players humility, effort, ambition, respect and teamwork.”
FC Barcelona spent 70 years developing players perfecting that method, Nash said. “It produces great kids who grow into great adults. … And it just so happens, it produces terrific players, some of whom who will go on to play professionally.”
Sixteen-year-old Tyler Meeusen has been playing soccer in Loudoun County since he was 3 years old. He first played with Loudoun Soccer and is now with a Leesburg Football Club team that recently won the prestigious Hershey Tournament in Pennsylvania. He’s enjoyed seeing soccer’s local fan base grow over the years.
“All of these academies and programs coming here is going to be a great opportunity for kids coming up,” he said. “Being exposed to all this will show them that soccer can take them places if they keep trying.”
After he graduates from Woodgrove High School next year, he has his sights set on playing in college.
Loudoun Now intern TJ Davis contributed to this report.