Soccer is an international language that brings together people from all over the world. Now it's also bringing together local folks as well. Today marks the kickoff of the second season for the Coast Futbal Alliance, a new league formed from the consolidation of three local soccer clubs.
While many local kids in the past played for either the Coastal Soccer Club, Horry-Georgetown Soccer or the Ocean Strand Soccer Club, those leagues have merged under the same umbrella of Coast FA. "It's definitely a move in the right direction. It's 100 percent better than the old system," said director of coaching for Coast FA select teams Joel Banta, whose father, Paul Banta, was the founding father of youth soccer on the Strand. "Everybody had different thoughts about how to run a program, but I think it took people finally seeing eye to eye for soccer to go forward in our area. We lost some people, but we're doing what we think is right for the community and the development of the players."
Philosophical differences, geography and plain ol' parental politics led to the fractured system under which local kids once played. Horry-Georgetown focused on the recreational side of the sport while CSC and OSSOC handled the select squads, or all-star travel teams. The split led to a watered-down talent pool and a battle to recruit rec players to the next level. Now, with 600 boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 17 in the same system, there's increased competition and training for the players, as well as a cohesive progression for players to move up the ladder.
"[Previously] we had two select programs competing for players and neither had their own feeder system," said Coast FA board of directors member Paul Benik. "We decided to come together to provide the soccer community one united league, working together instead of against one another. Now for the first time since the original days of soccer [on the Strand], there's one ground-up program for [ages] under-5 through under-18."
The new structure not only provides recreational soccer for kids who are just out for kicks and select soccer for older, more talented players, it also has a middle tier known as the developmental level. It identifies players from the under-7 through under-12 age groups with potential and provides additional training to prepare them to play on the select level.
"The format for the rec and select hasn't changed a great deal, but the development of the younger kids is the key change," said Ross Morgan, director of coaching for the rec league. "The benefits of it, five to 10 years from now is when the fruits will really start being seen. You can see it now, but really in the next five to 10 years and beyond. These kids will be the next generation of coaches and parents, and they'll know the benefits of this system."
There are other rec leagues around the Strand (for example, the Grand Strand YMCA in Myrtle Beach and the cities of Conway, Georgetown and North Myrtle Beach), but Coast FA offers all levels of play at two central locations - Socastee Park and the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base - except, of course, for the select teams.
The rec league has a policy of taking "all-comers" and assuring at least 50-percent playing time for every player. The top players are introduced to the developmental part of the program for additional practice and training in hopes of playing at the select level someday.
It's a three-part mission that organizers hope leads to a better experience for players and parents and better soccer in the future for the Strand. "We're basically trying to grow the soccer base within Horry County, unify it and expand it," Benik said. "I envision a local area rec league where kids can come in and get all levels of competition with limited travel, train them to be better players. Then we take the best of best, put them together on select teams and hopefully go to regionals and nationals. That's the gameplan."