BY GENE NARDI
From July 4 through July 10, the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) staged its national tournament at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington.
The event is biannual, and the AYSO made Palm Beach County the host venue this year. The tournament drew in affiliated teams from all over the country, with teams coming from as far as Hawaii. With more than 230 teams converging on the area, the AYSO worked out a partnership with the Palm Beach County Sports Commission.
“It’s a huge win for Palm Beach County economically,” AYSO Section 14 Director Richard Schwartz said. “We couldn’t do this without the sports commission. It just wouldn’t have been possible.”
Schwartz oversees regions in Florida and the Caribbean. The event has become one of the largest and most prestigious of its kind, and the only venue locally that’s capable of accommodating such numbers is IPC. Thirty fields were lined up at a single location spanning more than 300 acres, making it easier for teams and spectators to travel. The polo club venue was key in the Palm Beach County Sports Commission’s bid to bring the event to the area.
Divisions for teams started at U10 (under 10) and up to U19 for boys and girls. Teams played five games in pool play, then entered bracket play, to crown division champions on the final day. “The teams get here by way of a lottery system,” Schwartz said.
Teams are selected every two years to participate in the tournament. There were several local teams competing. The Okeeheelee Heat had 14 national teams participating, making up most of the 35 teams from Palm Beach County. The Acreage Arsenal had five teams competing in the games, from U10 to U14 boys and girls. U10 girls head coach Brian Christie has coached with the club for five years, and brought his team in to compete.
“This year, we formed a U10 travel team based on our record,” Christie said. “It’s huge to be a part of this. We competed in the state games in January and did very well.”
Boynton Beach also has an AYSO program and also had teams competing in the games.
The tournament brings a strong economic impact to Wellington and the surrounding communities, with approximately 10,000 players, parents and family members traveling to the area for the week, clearly making it the largest sports event in Palm Beach County during the summer. The area has several lodging accommodations, shopping and dining available for everyone.
“It was convenient for us, since we’re local,” Christie said. “We still did some fundraising to cover the costs.”
AYSO promotes the game in a positive way. On the first day, Soccer Fest gave teams the opportunity to bond with each other in pickup games, mixing players from different teams. When the tournament kicked off, players exchanged team pins and lanyards after each match.
ABOVE: Acreage Arsenal (green & black) tries to keep the ball in play against AYSO California in the U14 boys division.