Action is always fast and furious at the soccer fields in Gaastra where teams in the Iron River Soccer Association battle, like in this game last August. The new season will start on July 14, and the teams will follow a World Cup theme this year.
GAASTRA—As apparent to anyone with a television, the World Cup is just about everywhere the last 2½ weeks. The world’s most important and most popular soccer event, which takes place every four years, has been televised in its entirety on ESPN and ABC, with wall-to-wall coverage every day since the tournament started on June 12.
No wonder the excitement has filtered down throughout the sporting world, from huge cities like Chicago into small communities like Iron River.
The Iron River Soccer Association has jumped on this passion and has included a World Cup theme into its league structure this summer.
The association’s 20 teams will don the colored jerseys of some of the World Cup countries, with each country’s name splashed across the shirt.
“We’re riding the back of that,” said IRSA President James Swanson II. “Everybody’s watching that now, and more and more kids are watching it in our league. It’s a great thing that it’s been on, and it’s getting people excited to want to get out here and play.”
In fact, the IRSA has a record-number of kids registered to play in one of its five divisions this summer. Swanson said the number stands at 260 youngsters, up from 200 last year.
The divisions are U-6 (for players ages 4 and 5), U-8, U-10, U-12 and U-16. All teams are co-ed.
The association, which began in 2003, is part of the Soccer Association for Youth, a national organization that is affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation.
The league begins its games on July 14, with games running Monday through Thursday. Games begin at 5, 6 and 7 p.m. at the Elmer “Swede” Anderson Memorial Park in Gaastra.
Following the World Cup theme, the coaches in each division drew cards to pick which country their teams would represent.
“Everybody wanted to be the USA,” said Swanson, who will coach an Argentina squad. “We decided to represent as many countries as we could. We tried to pick the host country Brazil and others that are close or popular.”
The teams in the association are coached mostly by parents and by others who love the sport and enjoy working with kids, Swanson said. Coaches draft the players for each team.
“We hope to have a good balance of players, gender and age,” Swanson said. “And it usually works out pretty well. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the system that SAY recommends.”
Referees for the games include players in the league who are being trained by Adam Holroyd and Megan Nyberg, who oversee the referee program.
The growth of soccer in the United States over the past decade stems in large part from the sport’s makeup. The game can be played by just about any youngster, and leagues like the IRSA make sure that players don’t spend much time watching.
“That’s what’s nice about soccer – everybody gets to play,” Swanson said. “There’s really no one sitting on the bench for very long. Even your star players need to sit down and take a breather.”
Swanson said players in the IRSA compete in at least half the game.
“It’s fun, I get to run and play just about every position,” said 13-year-old Dakota Hawkes of Iron River.
Not all players want to play every position, though.
“Not goalie. I’d rather not have balls kicked at my face,” said 14-year-old Sam Clements of Caspian, who started playing soccer in kindergarten.
Another special theme this summer will be the dedication of the 2014 season to Paul Masnjak, a key member of the association who died last September.
One of the league’s players, Katilee Rhino, came up with the idea of putting Masnjak’s initials, PJM, on the sleeves of all the jerseys in his memory.
The league also plans to plant a tree in dedication to Masnjak on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the soccer field.
Also, new this year is a restroom facility that is now open. The city of Gaastra has applied for more grant money to do landscaping and possibly may add some bleachers, Swanson said.
“We couldn’t do this without the community of Gaastra. They’ve been so supportive, and we’re so thankful for their partnership.”
The signs point to IRSA’s continued growth. With increasing numbers come more games and more activity at the fields.
“We will have games going on at both fields at the same time,” Swanson said. “That’s never happened. That’s going to make it a little crazy down here, so come early and get a parking spot.”