Idaho soccer clubs trying to keep up with shifting U.S. landscape

Arsenal United Knights’ Guadalupe Barajas moves the ball under pressure from Boise Nationals Inter players during a U17 boys game Saturday at the Idaho State Cup soccer tournament at Simplot Sports Complex.
Arsenal United Knights’ Guadalupe Barajas moves the ball under pressure from Boise Nationals Inter players during a U17 boys game Saturday at the Idaho State Cup soccer tournament at Simplot Sports Complex.

Logan Emory thinks back to his junior year in high school, when his Boise Nationals team made the Far West Regional semifinals and college coaches from around the country lined the sidelines to scout the game.

That’s where Emory, who went on to become the first Idaho-born player to play in an MLS league game, got his big break. But as the Idaho State Cup club soccer tournament winds down Monday 11 years later, the Boise Nationals and Centennial High coach worries the opportunity that sprung his college and professional career is closing on Idaho players.

“It’s getting a lot harder,” Emory said. “When I played, it was you go to State Cup and if you’re lucky enough to be on the top team in the area, you go to regionals. And that was really your shot.”

That route remains an option for Idaho soccer players. Plenty of college coaches still scout the regional tournaments, which State Cup winners qualify for. And plenty still mine the state’s Olympic Development Program (ODP). But Emory has noticed fewer and fewer college coaches attending, looking instead toward a burgeoning academy system in the United States that provides one-stop shopping for recruiters.

“If you can get your foot in the door at an academy, you’ve got the eyes of the world on you,” Emory said. “That’s not even to mention America. Having said that, it’s not a good thing for Idaho.”

MLS clubs run the top academies to fill their pipeline with talent. While with the LA Galaxy, Emory said scouts from Europe’s top clubs poured into the Galaxy’s academy. He said that’s a boon for U.S. soccer overall.

But academies aren’t limited to MLS clubs and cities. They dot the country from Hampton, N.H., to Manheim, Penn., to Aptos, Calif., as the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-17/18 league fields 74 teams.

Idaho does not have one, and Emory said that holds the Gem State back.

“It’s frustrating because the gap is widening, quickly,” Emory said. “But there’s not really a whole lot to do about it at this point. Boise is very much playing catchup. Idaho is playing catchup.”

Idaho players still own a path into academies, albeit a long one. The MLS carved Idaho into a homegrown territory for the Portland Timbers, allowing the club rights to all players from the state. The Boise Nationals and Coeur d’Alene Sting further solidified their ties with Portland, joining the adidas Timbers Alliance as part of a program to funnel their top players into Portland’s academy.

The partnership allows players to move to Portland to receive training from the club’s coaches, where they can get on the radar of college scouts and potentially move on to the professional ranks.

Eagle’s Blake Bodily, a University of Washington signee, and Pocatello’s Terrell Lowe, a signee for national power Virginia, both followed that route.

“Certainly ODP is still a great gateway to be recognized. But I believe now that affiliations with the MLS club is maybe more of a streamlined way to get there,” said Matt Billings, director of coaching for the Boise Nationals. “For instance, our tryouts are on June 6 and 7, and we’ll have Timbers scouts at our tryouts looking at players and trying to identify some kids that could be moved into their academy.”

Skyler Bell, the director of coaching for the Idaho Youth Soccer Association, maintains professional scouts will still find a rare talent like Emory in Idaho. But for players a step below Emory, tournaments like State Cup and Far West Regionals take on even more importance as college coaches gravitate to the easy scouting academies provide.

“How do we beat those kids out? Well, you win State Cups,” Bell said. “You go to regionals and you perform well. This really is our chance. It’s our opportunity for Idaho players to step up and say, ‘Look, we are regionally relevant.’ 

Michael Lycklama: 208-377-6424, @MichaelLycklama

Idaho State Cup

What: State tournament for youth club soccer teams

Levels: U-13 through U-17 boys and girls, U-19 boys

Where: Simplot Sports Complex, Boise

When: Four-day tournament continues Sunday and Monday. Games start at 9 a.m. All championships Monday.

Next: Champions qualify for Far West Regionals from June 20-26 at Simplot.

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