Travel soccer teams becoming the big thing in our area

It looks as though the lingering hard winter may finally subside enough to begin a very active season of regional spring soccer in our area.

The growth of local teams participating in travel soccer continues its trend for the 2014 spring season. The Altoona Soccer Club continues to see large numbers of teams in the U-9 through U-19 age group, with 15 travel teams and 201 players entered. Ten of the teams are playing as traditional club travel teams at Division 5 level. The U-11 boys, the U-11 girls and the U-12 girls are playing Division 4 in hopes of doing well enough to be promoted to Classic play.

The U-15 girls are playing Division 3 Classic, and the U-17 girls are playing at the highest Classic level. The number of girls playing at this very high level of competition should be a huge help to Altoona girls soccer coach Tony Lang when the fall scholastic season rolls around. He will inherit some extremely talented players from the classic squad, and they should notice a marked improvement from last season’s record. Altoona’s goal is to have teams at every single age group in order to compete with the teams from the Pittsburgh area.

Club president Eric Haugh has loftier goals, though. The club is actively seeking 10 to 20 acres to build its own playing complex and rely less heavily on the Altoona Area School District for fields to play on. Long-term plans even include an indoor practice facility. The Club has drawn together an Olympic development program headed by Boston Breakers coach Lisa Cole.

The local American Youth Soccer Organization and the Blair County commissioners have extended a helping hand to the club by making its fields available for Sunday games for the club through June 8. The AYSO was able to retain use of the fields for its play after a fear of losing playing privileges following the sale of Valley View Home. The AYSO signed a lease with Blair County last year to extend its use of the fields through June of 2018. The school district has once again given the go-ahead for Sunday travel games to be played at the intramural field and Mansion Park. The Omni turf at these two fields provides a big advantage to local teams over the visitors as they are not used to the speed and faster-paced play of the turf.

Younger referees step in

The growing problem of losing older experienced referees to handle this volume of games has been buffered by younger scholastic players stepping up to get their referee certifications and help fill the gaps. This will help meet the increased demand for refs and provide for a nice blend of youth and experience to handle the games.

World Cup approaching

On the national soccer scene, the drive toward the 2014 World Cup play in Brazil, set for June, continues as Major League Soccer stars on the men’s side continue fighting for spots on the 22-man roster.

The U.S. men’s team has one final game with Mexico before coach Jurgen Klinsman names his provisional squad for the FIFA World Cup. The U.S. is still placing its hopes on the legs of team leaders in forward and captain Clint Dempsey, midfielder Landon Donovan, goalie Tim Howard and midfielder Michael Bradley.

Klinsman is leaning heavily on MLS stars as the backbone of his team. The U.S. team is coming off the most successful year in its history, and its mix of experience and young talent will face a monumental challenge in its bracket in the World Cup, looking at games against Ghana, Portugal and Germany.

During the past 2 1/2 years, however, the men’s team has won a record-setting 12 straight games at home -capturing the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup title and looking impressive while doing so. Klinsman believes the squad is ready for the challenge of the World Cup as he has seen its level of play rise over the past several years.

An excellent series for die-hard American soccer fans to watch this spring will be ESPN’s “Inside U.S. Soccer’s March” to Brazil. It will air weekly beginning May 13 and contain a great deal of insight on the U.S. team and its intense preparation for the Cup. This year’s squad provides the U.S. with its best shot ever at making some type of run for the World Cup and provide soccer fans a thrilling game every time it takes the field.