A quick look at the list of 15 Louisiana teams that advanced to play in the U.S. Youth Soccer Region III Championships shows that the biggest cities in the Bayou State are well represented.
New Orleans has four teams in the tournament that begins Friday in Baton Rouge. The host city, as well as Lafayette, both had two teams make the field. Shreveport and Alexandria each have one team that will compete.
And then there’s the City of Mandeville with a robust five teams in the regional championship. That’s pretty heady company for a town that has a population of approximately 12,000 people – a number dwarfed by the populations in the aforementioned cities. But it’s not uncommon for the Mandeville Soccer Club to boast such success. After all, they’ve been producing championship teams for years.
That’s a far cry from the late 1990s, said Mike Ortner, MSC’s Director of Competitive Soccer. He remembers a time when the Mandeville Soccer Club didn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of opponents.
“We may have been the laughing stock of competitive soccer locally back then,” Ortner said. “If we broke bracket at the State Cup, it was a big deal.”
Not anymore. Four of the five MSC teams in the regional championship won state titles last month (the U-13, U-15, and U-16 boys, as well as the U-16 girls.) The MSC U-18 girls qualified for regionals via state competition. It’s a sign that the club that has captured dozens of state titles and readied hundreds of players for college competition may be ready to enter uncharted territory by producing a regional champion.
In 2013, this year’s U-16 boys and girls teams reached the quarterfinals at the U-15 level. But MSC officials know a better showing will be difficult. Approximately 200 teams from 11 states (including population-dense Florida and Texas) will compete at regionals.
“We’ve been chipping away at it,” said MSC Executive Director Shane Jeanfreau. “State is our goal and we did very well there. Anything after that is lagniappe.”
TURNING A CORNER
Talk to anyone who’s been with the MSC for more than a decade and they remember some of the leaner years. Sure, the north shore in general was a breeding ground for good soccer players in earlier times, but the consistency of the MSC brand really took a turn with the arrival of Jeanfreau and Ortner.
The duo helped restructure the program in ways that continue to prove fruitful today.
“We balance our teams, so we don’t have an A team and a B team at the U-9 through U-12 levels,” Ortner said. “Every team at that age has talent. When they’re 13, they’ve all spent time with a professional coach. It gives us a bigger pool of ready players when the competition ramps up at U-13. Before that, it’s all fundamentals. We teach and give the players time to develop and mature.”
That philosophy wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. As some MSC leaders point out, they sometimes take their lumps at lower age levels while other programs place a premium on success from the start.
“At first, it wasn’t too popular, not at all,” Ortner said. “The parents and the players had to see the long-term success. Once they did, it caught on. But they pushed back initially.”
The professional coaches Ortner speaks of are exactly that. Unlike many other programs, MSC pays its coaches. All are licensed and they are accountable for their team’s progression.
“It’s not just a dad on a sideline who’s coaching, someone who played soccer once when he was in high school,” Ortner said.
That has created a system whereby many of the MSC coaches are able to make coaching a career. Many of them also coach at the high school level. Ortner is the coach at St. Scholastica, which is a perennial state contender. Nick Chetta coaches the Northlake Christian boys and girls and he has two teams (U-16 and U-15 boys) in this year’s regional. Wes Leake has the U-16 girls team in the regional tournament and he guides the girls program at Lakeshore High.
The list goes on.
“Definitely, the strength of the prep programs comes from the Mandeville Soccer Club,” Ortner said.
“We played St. Paul’s last season and at one point, I had coached every kid on the field,” he said. “Mandeville Soccer Club has been great for every team in St. Tammany Parish.”
With the full support of the community, a supportive board of directors, and players and coaches in place, the MSC teams would like to take the next step with solid showings in Baton Rouge.
The regionals will be held Friday through June 26 at the Burbank Soccer Complex. An opening ceremony is scheduled for Thursday.
“The expectations are high, but we’re in some tough groups,” Chetta said. “But the kids are working hard. They were pretty dominant at the State Cup. (The U-15 and U-16) boys only have about two losses each this year. It’s not necessarily about winning it, but seeing where you are and how you need to grow. A lot of the players have aspirations to play in college. There are going to be coaches from around the country there.”
Regardless of the outcome, it’s guaranteed no one will take an MSC team lightly. That doesn’t happen anymore.
“Mandeville Soccer Club has built something special,” Ortner said. “It’s amazing how far it’s come.”
For information on the regional championships, go online to championships.usyouthsoccer.org/regionIII/.