So when Cline and other parents who have watched their children grow up playing soccer learned about North Carolina Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program, a path leading to regional and national soccer training, they got excited.
“We feel like it’s a big deal,” said Cline, who is president of the Swain Youth Soccer Association. The training camp in Bryson City, which kicked off in December, now gives players the chance to improve their game with guidance from college coaches.
It’s a new opportunity for soccer players in Western North Carolina, but in the state — and nation — as a whole, it’s nothing new. U.S. Youth Soccer started the national program to give talented teenage players the exposure they need to rise through the ranks. The ultimate goal? Ascending to the national spotlight for a chance to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
And bringing the camp to Bryson City could also heighten enthusiasm for soccer, allowing its appeal to compare to that of football.
The organization runs training camps in cities in central and eastern North Carolina every year; before December, the closest one was held in Statesville.
“The whole big thing about this is one word, really — the Olympics,” Cline said. “There’s a lot of excitement over it.”
That statement rang true at tryouts. At the Dec. 15 event, 41 players showed up to the Parks and Recreation Department to display their best moves before an audience of local and regional college soccer coaches.
“It went well,” Cline said. “We had a variety of age groups.”
Students ranged in age from 9 to 17, and all 41 of them spent the day training with local coaches during the first of six sessions scheduled between December and April. Players who demonstrate exceptional skills there could earn the chance to train with even higher-level coaches and players at state, regional and national trainings.
“Either way they’re going to have college-level coaches, but it could be national-level coaches if they make it to the very end,” Cline said.
Having the potential for that kind of experience is huge for young players, Cline said.
“The biggest benefit is (other participating) players will be high-caliber and have that exposure to college coaches,” he said.
It is impossible to predict whether any soccer player here will ascend to the highest tiers, of course. But regardless of the final outcome, the training camp grants opportunity by gathering what local soccer coaches and enthusiasts say is a notable amount of young talent scattered across the mountains.
“Around here, you don’t have that much opportunity to play against really good players,” said Jack Gray, whose 9-year-old son, Matthew, earned a recommendation from his coach to try out for the training camp.
The camp provides that opportunity, as well as the distant possibility of fame and fortune that some young players — and their parents — find appealing.
“No one imagined that something like this was possible,” Gray said.