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Youth soccer: The goal is within reach

Worthington U14 soccer players (in red) make a play for possession of the ball Tuesday night in a game against St. Peter at the field behind the YMCA building in Worthington. An explosion of summer youth soccer activity is producing several outstanding teams with outstanding young athletes.

WORTHINGTON -- It has been three years since the YMCA, with the help of parent volunteers, created the Worthington FC boys' soccer teams.

And every year since then, the organization has seen increased numbers, enough so that this year, the YMCA was able to add a U12 and U14 team to go along with the U17 team that went undefeated last summer and won the Class C3 Minnesota Youth Soccer Association state tournament at the U15 level.

"We've had competitive soccer in Worthington before but it had been stopped years ago," Worthington FC President Gordon Moore said. "We decided that we needed to bring back the traveling, competitive teams again. Since we started the FC team, our numbers have increased every year, which is why we could add the U12 and U14 teams for the boys this summer."

So far this season, the U14 (10-0) and U17 (9-0) teams are undefeated while the U12 team finished the regular season with a 6-2-2 record.

"It's been really exciting to put this program together and see all the success these teams are having," Worthington Area YMCA Executive Director/CEO Andy Johnson said. "I feel like where our talent level is right now, we have the capability for a lot of success this season and beyond."

With the development of the Worthington FC teams, Moore and many other volunteers hope that the successes the youth programs are seeing will translate to the varsity level over the next several years.

"The high school teams have been competitive in the past, but they have never been able to break through and make it to state or make a deep run at state," Moore said. "We need more kids playing at a younger age and developing their skills earlier so that they are ready to play come varsity season in the fall."

Besides allowing players to develop their skills, the Worthington FC teams are a place for coaches to help instill good habits in the younger kids.

"It is really nice to get to work with the younger kids and instill good habits in them at an early age," co-coach of the U12 team, Smitty Ektnitphong, said. "Coaching these kids allows me to give them pointers on how to keep their life balanced between soccer and school. I also try to teach them a good work ethic, like being on time for games and practices or respecting their team and teammates."

One reason for the early success of the Worthington FC teams is the level of enthusiasm that the players bring with them every day to practices and games.

"The kids are so enthusiastic about playing the game of soccer," Ektnitphong, who coaches alongside his daughter, Nicole, said. "The whole group listens to what they are told and want to learn more about the game. Their enthusiasm makes it worthwhile for me to come out and coach."

Another reason the youth teams are able to play at such a high level is the diversity of the Worthington community and the passion many of the families have for soccer.

"The fact is that this community has a population of people who know this game very well and are born loving the sport," Johnson said. "The skill level we are seeing comes from these kids' parents and siblings who have a passion for the game and have played before, or from their culture in general.

"But a lot of the credit should also go to the coaches. They are doing wonderful things with these teams."

As the regular season comes to an end for the Worthington FC teams, Ektnitphong can attest to the improvements that his U12 team, along with the U14 and U17 teams, have made.

"You can see the progression of these kids as the season has gone on," Ektnitphong said. "They have gotten better as a team and are playing really well together as well as getting more skilled as individuals."

The next step for Moore and the Worthington FC organization is to bring in more girls to the program.

"We are working on the girls side of things," Moore said. "My goal is to have a girls competitive team put together by next year. As well as adding another team on the boys' side."

Johnson is not sure why Worthington FC is having so much trouble getting girls to join the program, but it is something that everyone is trying their best to fix.

"We want to make a concerted effort to get more girls to come out for the teams," Johnson said. "We want to send a message that playing on a rec team or a competitive team during the summer is a good way to become better as a player and make the school teams more competitive."

"The most important thing is the parent support we have," Ektnitphong said. "When we go to away games, I am always leading a seven- or eight-car caravan down the road with the parents following me all the way.

"It is a nice family outing for everyone, and it is so nice to see all the parents encouraging the kids. I'm really happy about that."

The Minnesota Youth Soccer Association State Tournament Qualifiers for all three teams begin July 13 and go through July 18 with the state tournament beginning July 20.