How suburban semipro soccer clubs are helping to grow the game

 
 
Posted7/4/2018 1:00 AM
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  • Elgin Pumas player David Alcantar takes a corner kick during a recent game against DeKalb County United at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

      Elgin Pumas player David Alcantar takes a corner kick during a recent game against DeKalb County United at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Orrin Schwarz | Staff Photographer

  • DeKalb County United players, left, and Elgin Pumas players line up for pregame introductions before a recent UPSL game.

      DeKalb County United players, left, and Elgin Pumas players line up for pregame introductions before a recent UPSL game. Orrin Schwarz | Staff Photographer

To find how the sport of soccer is growing, you have to know where to look.

While the World Cup goes on without the United States, new semipro soccer teams are playing in the suburbs, building the sport's infrastructure in Aurora, Elgin, Joliet and DeKalb as well as in Chicago.

"Our tickets here are $5, so you don't have to drive to Chicago to watch a Fire game," said John Hall, founder and president of first-year club DeKalb County United. "You can drive five minutes across town and watch a pro level. Our guys are training hard. We're trying to treat them as professional as we can. They're acting as professional as we've asked them to."

Aurora Borealis SC was the first to get off the ground in the area, playing its first season in 2016. Elgin Pumas SC began play in 2017. Along with DeKalb County, Joliet United SC and RWB Adria in Chicago and a team in Dubuque, Iowa, they play in the United Premier Soccer League's Midwest Conference Central Division. The UPSL formed in 2011 in California and has grown to about 185 clubs throughout the country.

Launching these teams can be a struggle, including finding a place to play and a place to train, and finding volunteers to help carry out the day-to-day and game-day needs of the club.

"You have to find the sponsors. That's the hardest thing," Pumas coach Cristopher Sosa said.

The addition of more local teams has benefitted Aurora Borealis.

"It's great because it cuts down on the expenses as far as travel," said Aurora Borealis president and founder Tim Cottingim. "The first year we had to go to Detroit twice. We had to go to Toledo, Grand Rapids, Michigan."

Of course, the clubs' proximity also means they're competing for some of the same players.

"I think it's definitely helping to grow the game, just by the fact that it's giving our players more opportunities to play," Cottingim said. "I guess my one sentiment would be that I wish it was more conjoined with the whole federation, the whole U.S. Soccer vision."

In part Cottingim means financial help. But a theme throughout semipro soccer is a desire to see U.S. Soccer adopt the promotion/relegation system found throughout the world. That would provide clubs a reward for success, giving fans and players a goal they can work to reach.

"It just creates interest," Cottingim said, referring to fans and players both.

A key difference with Elgin Pumas is they have youth teams and develop their players through those youth teams. And instead of trying to develop players for other American leagues, they hope to send their players on to clubs in Mexico, Costa Rica or even the Spanish second or third divisions.

Those are big goals for Pumas players, who are on summer break from their college or high school teams.

"I think this is a step you have to take," Sosa said. "Because to me, high school and all those leagues are not the best way to get in a professional world. This is the step."

It's also a step with meaning for their communities.

"It's about every little neighborhood has a hometown club, like in Europe," Hall said. "It's about the grass-roots efforts of inspiring kids. Yeah, it will take a long time, but I think over time, if we can sustain, you're going to see the high school programs and the youth clubs and everybody's going to get better because kids are going to elevate themselves and they're going practice harder and they're going to (say), I want to play for that team someday."

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