Union seeks to establish soccer program in Chester schools
The region's new professional soccer team is setting up shop in a town where the sport has hardly existed. Chester High School, a perennial contender in basketball, doesn't have a soccer team. Throughout the Chester Upland School District, in fact, there is no soccer program.
The region's new professional soccer team is setting up shop in a town where the sport has hardly existed.
Chester High School, a perennial contender in basketball, doesn't have a soccer team. Throughout the Chester Upland School District, in fact, there is no soccer program.
Last week, Philadelphia Union vice president Rob Smith arrived on the district's doorstep with a swift kick at the ready.
On loan from the Major League Soccer team, whose home will be a new stadium in Chester, Smith is working nearly full time to establish a district soccer program. The former championship coach and Superintendent Gregory Thornton hope to have elementary and middle school intramural programs by June and a high school team ready for PIAA competition in 2010-11.
"This is a basketball town, and they are proud of that tradition," said Smith, 48. "We don't necessarily want to compete with that, but we'd like to get a level playing field for the kids who choose soccer."
Thornton, who is reluctant to use the word never, said public schools in Chester had not had a soccer program "in recent memory."
Chester Upland officials and Smith also will work with existing soccer programs in the city to provide year-round opportunities for youths.
Perhaps the sport one day will give Chester teens a way to "kick their way into college," Thornton said. "Every opportunity we have to get kids excited about something that will keep them in school, we do it."
The sports program joins a host of new initiatives and new schools in a district working to break away from a history of failing test scores and financial troubles. The soccer club's $115 million stadium is part of a massive redevelopment effort intended to revive an impoverished city.
Nick Sakiewicz, the Union's chief executive officer and operating partner, likens his upbringing in Passaic, N.J., to the challenges facing many young people in Chester.
"I grew up in a poor neighborhood and latched onto soccer early," Sakiewicz said. "It got me a college education." The team's mission with the district program is to "give back," he said.
If the effort develops fans and a star hometown player along the way, "that's not so bad, either," Sakiewicz said.
Smith will work from an office in the district. The team is paying his salary as vice president of soccer development and community relations while he spends 90 percent of his time working in Chester.
Smith became interested in soccer while a student at Coatesville Area High School. He was a triple threat in football, basketball, and baseball. While he was recovering from a football injury, a coach encouraged him to consider soccer.
Smith saw a classmate juggling a soccer ball, and was intrigued.
"He was doing things with his feet that you see other players do with their hands," said Smith, a former sales and operations manager at Nike.
He went on to play soccer in high school and at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. He wanted to play professionally, but when Smith got out of college, the North American Soccer League was failing.
Smith turned to coaching and won four state championships as a high school girls' coach in the Downingtown Area School District. He is a former president of FC Delco, an elite youth soccer club in the area, and helped develop the United Sports Training Center, a 40-acre, multisport facility in Downingtown.
Before Smith's arrival, at least three Chester groups had helped cultivate an interest in soccer among young people: the Chambers Foundation, Chester PAL in conjunction with the city's Department of Recreation, and the William Trippley III Youth Development Foundation.
Patricia Trippley Demiranda helped spearhead a youth soccer program in Chester four years ago after her son William, a standout player, was killed in the cross fire of a gunfight near his home.
"My son didn't play [in Chester] because there was nothing here for him," Demiranda said. She is looking forward to working with Smith, who knew her son when Trippley played with FC Delco.
At Chester High, Smith is already hard at work preaching soccer. Seven students showed at an initial call for soccer players to take athletic physicals. (About 100 typically show up for football.) Since then, Smith has hit the locker rooms, gym classes, and other teams' practices to generate excitement.
"It may sound hokey," he said, "but it would be great to have a player from Chester in the stadium someday. Will Trippley had that potential."