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Naples Daily News (Florida)
It was hot and early, but none of that mattered to the 8- to 13-year-olds in their favorite soccer jerseys, running through footwork drills and chanting the famous British soccer cheer, "Oggie, Oggie, Oggie! Oi, Oi, Oi!"
The roughly 40 players were at the Seagate Elementary School soccer fields for the same reason, Kick Off Soccer camp.
Camp Director Gavin Spooner said the campgoers live and breathe soccer. Not only do they have the outfits, they kept running over to Spooner's iPad to check the score of the match between Iran and Morocco, two places these kids might not even be able to find on a map.
The 2018 World Cup began in Russia earlier this month. For the first time since 1986, the United States failed to qualify for the tournament, but that isn't expected to slow down youth soccer in Southwest Florida, where it has been booming.
When Charlie Todd took over as president of the Southwest Florida Soccer Association in 2009, there was one local soccer club in the area. If players wanted competition, they had to travel to Miami or Tampa, where most of the club teams were.
After nine years, the soccer association has grown to nine soccer clubs in Southwest Florida with 82 boys and girls teams and more than 1,000 players.
The increase in club teams has led to growth in the structure that supports youth soccer.
There are many places to play, and with Florida's weather, kids can go outside and play soccer any time of the year, said Austin Bruno, the parent of two kids at Kick Off Soccer.
There are 27 soccer fields across Collier County at parks such as Eagle Lakes, Golden Gate, Pelican Bay and more. The number of fields has nearly doubled since 2005, when there were only 14.
Todd's goal as head of the soccer association was capitalize on the interest in soccer to create local soccer clubs that would compete against each other.
"I think we've seen growth (in soccer) because of the convenience to parents," Todd said. "It's much easier for kids to play now."
When parents and players had to travel to Miami, the trip and match could take much of the day. But now there are more quality teams closer to the Naples area.
The sport never has been easier to follow. All of the top international leagues and tournaments are on TV. If you spend just a few minutes searching the internet, you can find a trick shot or winning goal from any game almost anywhere in the world.
The social media aspect of soccer has been huge for its popularity, said Chris Cashion, assistant director of coaching for the Florida Fire Juniors, a youth soccer club in Naples.
The Fire, affiliated with the Major League Soccer club Chicago Fire, is one of the largest youth soccer clubs in Southwest Florida. The club has a total of 42 boys and girls teams, with more than 600 players ranging in age from 5 to 18.
Cashion, who graduated from Barron Collier High in 2004, said the popularity of soccer in Southwest Florida has grown rapidly over the past two decades, sparked mainly by the 1999 U.S. women's World Cup team and the 2002 U.S. men's World Cup team.
"Those World Cups were eye-opening for soccer in America," Cashion said.
The U.S. women's team won World Cups in 1999 and 2015. The 1999 championship is widely credited for starting a soccer revolution among young girls. But the legacy of the 2015 winning team can be seen in all the players at the Seagate fields wearing the jerseys of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, leaders of that team.
The 2002 men's team reached the quarterfinals in the World Cup for first time since 1930 by upsetting Mexico. Before this year's tournament, the U.S. men's team had made it to the final 16 in three out of the last four World Cup tournaments.
The low cost of soccer also has been important in its growth, according to Christian Garcia, a youth academy director at the Azzuri Storm, a club in Bonita Springs.
"All you really need is a ball and to go find a park and play," he said.
Access to better coaches also has contributed to the sport's growth in Naples, said Florida Fire coaching director Paul Williams.
"The coaching has allowed us to retain better players but also attract new players," he said.
Clubs such as the Fire and Storm have coaches with experience not only locally but around the world.
Spooner is one of them. Along with running Kick-Off Soccer, he is a coach with the Storm. He came to the U.S. from England 20 years ago to coach soccer during college.
"I came over and just never went back," he said.
This year was Spooner's 10th year running Kick-Off Soccer in Collier County.
Most of the players at his camp play soccer year-round, between clubs and summer camps, dedicating most of their time to the sport.
Addison Bruno, 12, one of the Kick-Off Soccer campgoers, was told by his father he could play only one sport because of the time commitment sports requires.
So Addison chose.
"I used to swim, but now I really only play soccer," he said.
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