With youth soccer in the United States booming, there are more travel teams than ever before as new clubs and leagues sprout up constantly to accommodate the escalating demand. This continuous spike in participation has left the bluebloods of the tournament industry – the Jefferson Cup, CASL Showcase, Bethesda Premier Cup, Disney Soccer Showcase and others – having to turn away hundreds of teams on an annual basis.
Rather than becoming increasingly exclusive when capacity based on field space and other factors is reached, many of the nation’s top showcase tournaments are opting to be more inclusive by providing teams that may not gain acceptance based solely on résumé an opportunity to play their way in through qualifying events.
Within the Mid-Atlantic region, CASL, Bethesda SC and the Richmond Strikers have gone about opening the doors to their premier level tournaments with qualifiers in different ways and for distinct reasons.
At CASL, a major North Carolina soccer club in the Raleigh area, the CASL National Soccer Series Qualifier recently completed its third year of serving as a play-in event for the club’s Showcase and Junior Showcase events held across four weeks in November and early December. The Qualifier, held in September, places U-10 through U-14 champions and finalists into the Junior Showcase, and U-15 through U-18 sides into the Boys and Girls Showcase weekends.
The CASL Showcase has long been one of the premier tournaments in the South, drawing hundreds of top teams from all over the country along with more than 750 college coaches over the course of two weekends. Held at the 24 turf field WRAL Soccer Complex, which also has a 3,200 seat stadium, the event is often held in alignment with the ACC Soccer Championship and NCAA College Cup, and played alongside the US Youth Soccer National League’s opening weekend.
More than 100 teams competed across 20 divisions in the third edition of the CASL Qualifier, which gave over a dozen teams on both the boys and girls sides guaranteed acceptance into the prestigious tournament weekends later in the fall. The CASL Qualifier is a revamped version of a previous event hosted by the club, which had leveled off in application numbers before a rejuvenation since the re-branding.
“It’s been really successful because it gives us another marketing avenue bring teams into our venue, exposing them to what CASL does and how we run our tournaments, growing the exposure for what we believe are really well run events,” said CASL Tournament Director Bill Hanckel.
Along with marketing benefits for clubs, qualifying events are providing an avenue to increased exposure for teams that may be talented, but simply don’t have the same track records as other higher-ranked teams. In many cases, teams that have reached the main showcase via the qualifier have seen similar success at the higher level event, which often leads to a snowball effect in helping get into other top tournaments.
“There are hundreds of teams that don’t know they can compete at this level, or don’t think they can,” Hanckel said. “With these qualifier events, teams only improve when they do get to the higher level events, and I think it boosts their confidence and is valuable going forward.”
The Capital Fall Classic, a two-weekend tournament hosted in November as part of the Richmond Strikers Tournament Series, now serves as the only qualifying event for the prestigious Jefferson Cup. Having grown into a nearly 500-team tournament the last two years since starting out as a small to mid-size event, the Capital Fall Classic is now a somewhat comprehensive end-of-season event that also encompasses Jefferson Cup qualifying in the top brackets.
For Strikers Tournament Director John Faircloth, the primary focus of the Capital Fall Classic is hosting an event that has an appropriate level of competition for every team in attendance, providing a showcase event or simply an opportunity to close the fall season against opponents from around the country. Jefferson Cup qualifying for Premier Division champions provides first and second teams from many clubs with a prize on the line, while third and fourth teams within age groups from the same clubs can also attend the same tournament against evenly-matched competition.
“More than three quarters of our teams are not in the qualifier divisions, so we put most of our focus on the wide range of competition levels of the event,” Faircloth said.
While only about 25 percent of participating teams are placed in Jefferson Cup qualifying divisions, the qualifier brackets provide the level of comprehensiveness that allow clubs to send multiple teams within an age group. Much like at CASL, Capital Fall Classic champions have gone on to fare extremely well at the Jefferson Cup and continue to succeed after that.
After qualifying last November, the West Virginia Chaos U-17 girls went on to win the Jefferson Cup Platinum Black Division, beating out 11 other teams. The 2014 State Cup champions also finished as semifinalists at the US Youth Soccer Region I Championships. Also in 2014-2015, Capital Fall Classic qualifiers SYC Stampede placed third in the Jefferson Cup U-16 Platinum Black Division, and Richmond Kickers Elite went on to finish as semifinalists in the Jefferson Cup 7v7 Championship Division at the U-10 level.
One of the newest premier level tournament to incorporate showcase events is the Generation Adidas Bethesda Premier Cup, recently re-named from the Bethesda Tournament commonly known as the Bethesda Thanksgiving Tournament. Community involvement is one of the main themes of the new format, which for the first time this year is giving teams the chance to qualify via Rush For The Cup and the recently-launched Embassy Cup.
Incorporating Rush For The Cup and the Embassy Cup into the Bethesda Premier Cup bolstered an existing partnership with some of the area’s local clubs as well as the Maryland SoccerPlex, the primary host of all three events. The SoccerPlex, Maryland Rush Montgomery and Alliance SC host Rush For the Cup as a fall preseason tournament which has grown steadily since launching in 2013. The inaugural edition of the Embassy Cup – an international event in its infancy stage, with the goal of becoming somewhat of an East Coast version of the Dallas Cup – was held at the SoccerPlex in May 2015, with the draw of Bethesda Premier Cup qualifying helping it get off the ground.
“We’re seeing more and more of these combination events, clubs working with other local clubs to help benefit each others’ programs” said Bethesda SC Tournament Director Brad Roos. “The Embassy Cup and Rush For The Cup are both collaboration events, and I think that makes a lot of sense, it’s a prefect marriage to come together and help these tournaments grow.”
Roos has spent more than 20 years coaching soccer, and one of the most difficult parts of his job in recent years has been having to turn away some 400 teams from participating in Bethesda’s flagship event, which is receiving nearly 1,500 applications annually. In addition to providing other local tournaments the benefit of being connected to the Premier Cup, the qualifying outlet also allows teams to earn their way into the coveted showcase.
“It bothers me having been a coach for so long knowing that there are so many teams who want to play in front of college coaches but can’t get that opportunity,” Roos said. “When teams don’t get into a tournament, they look down the acceptance list and compare themselves to every single team that got in, and often times they feel like they deserved to be there. Now, those teams can earn their way in. It just provides opportunities, and that’s the No. 1 reason why we wanted to open up to qualifiers.”