DECATUR — With the grandest soccer tournament scoring unrivaled attention across the globe over the next four weeks, one Decatur area team hopes to make its own impression this weekend against the best of the Midwest and showcase the sport's growing popularity locally.
As the quadrennial World Cup begins this morning in Russia, the Decatur-area MidState Soccer Club’s under 17/18 heads off to West Chester, Ohio, to compete in the Midwest regional of the Presidents Cup. The MidState team qualified after winning the Illinois championship.
The winner of the 12-team regional tournament will get the chance to play against the top youth teams from across the country. The tournament appearance, MidState’s first ever, comes as interest continues to rise in the sport, which only increases during the World Cup.
“We definitely see a lot of interest within the kids here and within our travel programs,” said MidState director Colin Bonner. “And even the numbers that are really up are among the 3- and 4-year-olds, there are so many of them coming out for the soccer program. It seems it is the sport that most parents are getting their kids into.”
Talk of soccer becoming the future favorite sport for the United States has been around for decades, but participation in the world’s most popular sport has those involved in the local soccer scene excited about its future.
MidState has about 1,200 kids in its program, ranging from 17-year-olds down to those under the age of eight. Of those, Bonner said about 300 are part of advanced, traveling clubs.
The MidState Cup held annually in the spring has continued to grow and draw teams from across the Midwest to Decatur.
The Decatur Family YMCA has offered a youth soccer program for decades for preschoolers through under-14 for girls and boys. Saturday mornings in fall and spring are filled with the sounds of little ones herding a round a soccer ball up and down the field as volunteer coaches encourage them to "spread out" to the more advanced calls of "off sides" as the older kids learn the intricacies of the sport that will carry them into high school and beyond.
Regan O'Brien, the YMCA's interim sports director, says the program has about 400 players this spring, with the highest participation in the under-5 and under-6 age groups.
"We've done a lot more marketing than in the past and doing other stuff throughout the community and reaching out to our public schools and building a relationship with them, so we were able to reach a lot more just by doing that with our public schools," O'Brien said.
According to the Aspen Institute's State of Play 2017 report, 2.3 million kids played outdoor soccer in 2016, down from 3 million in 2010, but reflecting a trend of less participation in all team sports. Based in Colorado, the Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas, since its founding seven decades ago, according to its website.
The Decatur area has bucked that trend, advocates say. The biggest area of growth Bonner notes is in the number of club teams in the area. When he started here in 2011, there were 13 clubs, he said, and as of this year year, there are 20 club teams competing in the area.
The rising interest in Decatur is clear to Todd Shumaker, an assistant at MidState who was raised in a “soccer family.”
His family moved from Quincy to Mount Zion many years ago, and Shumaker said it feels like his family helped bring a higher calling for soccer to the Decatur community.
Shumaker’s brother, Mike, was among those who helped form the MidState Soccer Club. As he looks at the changes made over the past 10 years, Todd Shumaker sees a number of variables that have helped soccer. That includes everything from greater access to soccer matches on TV, to the popularity of the annual FIFA video games, injury concerns related to youth football, and soccer coaches who can teach tactics and help kids get a better understanding of the game, he said.
“When I was a kid, (the coach) was whichever dad raised his hand to volunteer,” he said.
The interest from youth has always been there, but that has not always translated into large groups watching TV together, hoping to share a World Cup experience with like-minded fans.
Fan bases across the country have made plans to watch their favorite teams. In 2014, bars in nearby cities such as Springfield, Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana emphasized the World Cup viewing experience, with some places having standing-room only crowds as they waved flags and rooted for the U.S. national team.
It was different Decatur, though, with most bars having the games on in the background as a handful of casual viewers tuned in. The situation is unlikely to improve this year, as the United State’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. And with the World Cup in Russia, start time for matches will be as early as 5 a.m. local time, with the latest games at 1 p.m.
A glance through social media for local bars and restaurants show no mention of the tournament, which can be attributed to the lack of customer demand, business owners say.
“Not at all,” said Bailee Conaway, manager of the Draft Sports Bar And Grill in Decatur, when asked if she has heard of any local interest in the event.
A survey conducted by ExpressVPN indicated more than 30 percent of Americans plan to watch World Cup matches; 45 percent among millennials. Interest could also perk up with news announced early Wednesday morning that the 2026 World Cup would come back to North America, with the United States, Mexico and Canada to host matches.
As he prepares for MidState’s weekend matches, Giovanni Fuentes said he hopes to watch some World Cup matches between his own games. A fan of the Mexican National Team, Fuentes, 17, smiles as he says the United States missing out will not affect his interest in the tournament, as Mexico qualified for its seventh straight World Cup. But among his friends, Fuentes said it really comes down to cheering for individual players, not nations, during the World Cup.
“A lot of people just go for teams who their favorite players are on,” he said.
O'Brien said the World Cup grabs the attention of players, although it's hard to say what the long-term impact will be.
"I cannot say exactly how much of an effect it has, but I do know it gets a lot of kids excited around that time," she said.
Bonner said he was not sure whether the U.S.’ no-show in the World Cup would hurt interest in youth participation. It may have hurt years ago, but with the popularity of the sport among youths, he said he was hopeful the impact would be minimal.
“ I think it’s now more global, they know (Argentinian player Lionel) Messi, they know (Portuguese player Cristiano) Ronaldo, they go there before they go to the national teams, the (Major League Soccer) teams,” he said. “The sport is still thriving, and the kids still go out and play soccer because they see the games on TV. “