By Peter Schwartz
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It could be happening on any field in our area — on Long Island, in Westchester or in Connecticut. Perhaps it’s in the five boroughs of the city, or maybe in New Jersey and possibly in the shadows of Red Bull Arena.
Throughout the Tri-State Area, there are thousands of kids playing youth soccer at both the instructional and intramural level. In many cases, the kids involved in those games are being impacted or have been impacted by the New York Red Bulls.
“Our grassroots outreach programs are incredibly important to what we do and to our organization,” said Dave Jervis, the Red Bulls’ director of training programs.
The Red Bulls started their training program from scratch in 2007 and now their outreach efforts reach around 35,000 players each year, putting the franchise in touch with some 50,000 family members. The program has gone from being involved in a small number of towns in its infancy to where it is today, reaching more than 125 communities in our area.
It’s the biggest outreach community entity in Major League Soccer and it’s even bigger than any of the other sports clubs in the Tri-State Area, including teams like the Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Knicks.
“Without a doubt we have a deeper, stronger connection than any other team in the New York area,” Jervis said.
It’s also believed that the Red Bulls’ youth soccer program is the largest outreach entity of any sports team in North America.
What the Red Bulls are doing is remarkable. Not only are they teaching the beautiful game of soccer to kids of all ages, but they are also building their supporters base one fan at a time. Each child that is impacted by a Red Bulls youth coach is taught to love the game, have fun, and improve their skills.
The franchise has never wavered in its commitment to youth soccer. In fact, the Red Bulls take their efforts very seriously when it comes to teaching the kids.
“The entire Red Bulls organization considers our grassroots soccer initiative a responsibility, not an option, to the community,” said Red Bulls general manager Marc de Grandpre. “Our hope is that some of them will even compete on the pitch of Red Bull Arena one day in the near future.”
The Red Bulls youth programs begin with kids at the age of 4. The lessons are not always about soccer, but are also about having a great experience. Once the coaches feel that the kids are really into what they’re doing and they want to keep coming back to training sessions, then business picks up for both the franchise and the players.
“They come to our games and they become fans,” Jervis said. “They drag mom and dad there and they become fans. When they’re 7, 8, 9 or 10 we start to see some players taking it serious. Our pathway allows for some of the truly talented players to progress into some of our higher-level programs.”
What the Red Bulls have put together is one of the most progressive player development systems among professional sports franchises in all of North America. They have youth amateur players that train and play games with both the Red Bulls and their USL Pro club Red Bulls II.
They also have their professional coaches providing direction and coaching to their youth academy teams.
“All of this translates into having an integrated club, vertically and horizontally, and kids from our community identified and developed at an early age,” Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis said. “We view providing player development programs to local players as an opportunity to connect with our community in a unique and special way.”
Just like any other sport, there are no guarantees that a youth player is going to make it to the Red Bulls, another MLS club, or even any other professional club at the various levels under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer. But the Red Bulls’ efforts have led to players climbing the ladder of their programs.
A good example of that is Tyler Adams, a native of Wappingers Falls, New York. He first joined the Red Bull’ Regional Development School program at the age of 10 and two years later joined the Red Bulls Academy Under-13 team. In March, he was signed by RBNY II.
“When you see somebody like that who has progressed all the way through the system, it’s rewarding for the whole organization,” Jervis said.
The Red Bulls also take pride in the players that don’t make it all the way to the pros. They have seen players in their system return to the organization as interns and youth coaches, while some players have gone on to play high school soccer and earn college scholarships.
Perhaps there will be a day when a youth player that the Red Bulls impacted makes it all the way to a spot on the U.S. National Team. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the men’s team. Everyone in the country’s soccer community is still basking in the glow of Team USA winning the Women’s World Cup.
It’s not crazy to think that there is a young lady playing on a pitch somewhere in our area that is being impacted by the Red Bulls’ training program that could one day be the next Carli Lloyd.
“Everything we do here is co-ed at the grassroots level,” Jervis said. “We have almost as many girls playing in our programs as we do boys.”
Every professional sports team, whether it’s in our area or throughout North America, has an impact on the community. Whether its player appearances, charitable efforts, or clinics, each team has a philosophy on how they go about community outreach.
And then there are the New York Red Bulls, who just might be the gold standard when it comes to youth initiatives. By impacting tens of thousands of kids each year, the organization has shown a strong commitment to teaching the beautiful game, building their fan base and establishing an academy with a clear pathway for players to climb the soccer ladder.
Follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan and the Red Bulls at @NewYorkRedBulls