Plan envisions Vernon Hills as hub for elite youth soccer players
A local youth sports organization is pursuing a plan to make Vernon Hills a hub for elite soccer players.
While there are opportunities elsewhere for that small segment of players to hone and advance their skills, the Vernon Hills Soccer Club is seeking a partnership to bring "development academy" status to the village.
That would mean high-caliber players would not have to leave Lake County to take part in the U.S. Soccer Federation-created program described as a pipeline to college programs and beyond.
The development academy "is considered the best opportunity in the nation" for high-level players, according to Peter Kempf, director of travel soccer for the Vernon Hills Soccer Club and a member of its board of directors.
"They can stay here and be viewed by the top club coaches in the nation and have a pathway," he added.
Youth soccer is a competitive market, according to Kempf, with various clubs -- mostly for-profit entities -- vying for the best players.
"They prey on kids' dreams, parents' dreams that their kids are elite," he said. "We run into problems where other clubs feed on the kids and parents and make promises they can't keep."
The soccer club is a nonprofit organization that has 300 to 350 participants in its recreational program and about 225 on the travel level. It is an affiliate of the Vernon Hills Park District, which allows it to use fields in return for abiding by certain rules and procedures, including having at least 85 percent of participants be Vernon Hills residents.
The plan is for the club to partner with Glenview-based FC United Soccer Club, one of six development academies in Illinois listed on the U.S. Soccer Federation website. Vernon Hills would become its home base for outdoor play.
Other suburban academies include the Chicago Fire Academy in Bridgeview and Sockers FC, with locations in Naperville and Palatine.
The partnership would stem the flow of departing players, allow the local club to grow, improve the quality of service and bring more and better events to Vernon Hills, Vernon Hills Soccer Club President Kevin Adkisson wrote in a letter to the village board.
"Since the creation of the academy system, medium-sized clubs such as Vernon Hills Soccer Club have been struggling and folding across the country," Adkisson wrote.
"All youth soccer players with next-level ambitions aspire to make the development academy team, including talented players from Vernon Hills," the letter continues. "The development academy system is designed to provide a pinnacle of youth soccer, a pipeline to the U.S. national team."
The letter was read to Vernon Hills trustees last week during an outline of the academy concept by Chad Gruen, who in recent years has brought several soccer and lacrosse tournaments to Vernon Hills, each drawing thousands of players, parents and spectators. His company, Soccer Events Group, operates FC United.
"The idea behind this is to help U.S. Soccer (Federation) create the best World Cup team," Gruen said.
The development academy partnership would prevent elite Vernon Hills players from leaving town.
"They stay," Gruen said.
Establishing the academy would come at no public cost but would require intergovernmental agreements with the park district and the village, which owns the fields at the Vernon Hills Athletic Complex. As planned, two fields would be reserved for the development academy and one for the soccer club.
"The park board verbally has committed to add this academy as an adjunct group of the (local) soccer club," said Jeff Fougerousse, park district executive director.
Besides being able to use indoor facilities by affiliating with FC United, the development academy would hold clinics on coaching, nutrition, recruiting and other topics to benefit elite players, according to Kempf.
He and others emphasized this would not involve general tryouts. Instead, coaches would recommend players.
"The development academy is for a select few," Kempf said.