European soccer clubs come to Chicago courting talent, fans, brand loyalty – Chicago Tribune
Across the turf of Schaumburg’s Olympic Park they scampered, 300 children wearing the distinctive navy blue of global soccer titan FC Barcelona. It was billed as a camp, but you could just as easily call it an incursion.
The week of drills and scrimmages marked the Spanish mega-club’s first step into Chicago’s youth soccer community. It will be followed this fall by academies where players can practice Barcelona’s fluid, crowd-pleasing style of play.
But while Barcelona is planting its flag in fresh territory, other European clubs are already here, running their own camps, scouting players and forming bonds with local teams. As some see it, the clubs are competing not just for talent — those athletes of rare quality who might make it to the top rung of professional soccer — but for brand loyalty.
“Why are Europeans in this market now? Because in 10 years this will be the hottest market on Earth,” said Marco Segarra, of ISL Futbol, the Spanish company that is managing Barcelona’s expansion into the U.S. “There will be no other market but America. The (global center) of soccer will be here.”
Big-name European teams have long come to the United States for summer tours — one of them, Real Madrid, will play Wednesday at Soldier Field against the Major League Soccer all-star team — but their connections with youth players are a recent trend, said Gary Hopkins, a soccer consultant and author of the book “Star-Spangled Soccer: The Selling, Marketing and Management of Soccer in the USA.”
He said two motivations are driving the clubs. Though America is still seen as a developing soccer power, that is changing rapidly, and many teams want to expand their scouting operations here.
But more than that, he said, the clubs are keen to establish themselves as brand names among American consumers. As the European game grows in visibility and popularity, the young players that the teams are courting could turn into lifelong supporters.
“I would say it’s more about marketing than talent scouting at this stage,” Hopkins said. “But that’ll change.”
Some Chicago youth teams say that change is underway.
Olympiacos Soccer Club Chicago is an official “school” of its namesake, the dominant club in Greece. Founder John Kosmas said he and his wife, Angela, established the team six years ago as an affiliate of the parent club, wearing its uniform and adhering to its training methods.
“What you see here with American soccer is that there’s a lot of running, a lot of long balls,” he said. “In Europe there is more skill, more passing. That’s what (the difference) comes down to.”
The relationship also allows a few kids the chance to practice at Olympiacos’ academy in Greece, where the club grooms prospects it believes could one day be good enough to join its first team.
Other partnerships between European clubs and Chicago-area youth teams follow the same blueprint.
Chicago Inter Soccer Club, based in Homer Glen, has an association with Dinamo Zagreb, Croatia’s leading pro team. Dinamo Zagreb sends coaches to the U.S. annually to conduct camps, and Chicago Inter sends a couple of prospects to Croatia for evaluation.
One of them is Jacques Roche, a 13-year-old goalkeeper from Lockport who this year will make his third trip. His family has picked up the tab for the travel, but his mother, Carolann, said it has been a worthwhile investment as both a cultural experience and a possible career boost.
“Jac’s intention is to find a team that will commit to him and that he can commit to, professionally speaking,” she said. “As parents, we’re just trying to do anything to help him fulfill his dream. If it means taking him to Zagreb every summer, that’s what we do.”
Segarra said he is dubious of European clubs that claim to use their U.S. youth soccer connections to find future pros. While American players are improving, he said, the country still lacks a critical mass of athletes who have the skill and hunger to fight their way to the top of the sport.
“If you’re coming just to scout players, you would never come here,” he said. “You go to Argentina. You go to Mexico. You go to Uruguay, Africa. But America? It’s very far away (from being a primary talent source).”
He said Barcelona’s goals are to spread its cerebral and encouraging approach to the sport and burnish its well-known brand. According to some parents who brought their children to the Schaumburg camp, the club is already meeting those aims.
“My son is a Barcelona fan; that was the No. 1 (reason he wanted to come),” said Olga Moreno, of Crystal Lake, who watched her 8-year-old Joshua from a nearby hillside. “Second was the morals they bring to the sport. We wanted to see what that was about. I’ve seen a lot of positives. They’re already talking about teamwork, not being a one-man show.”
You might think the Chicago Fire would not take kindly to European clubs rooting around in its backyard, but general manager Nelson Rodriguez said he takes it as a compliment to the area’s soccer talent and passion.
The Fire, he said, are ready to compete on all fronts.
“What I believe is we need to take care of our own business,” he said. “We need to do a good job in what we offer with the first team, academy, (youth teams) and community level. If we service people well and put out a good product, then I think they’ll all be chasing us.”
The European influx has become so pronounced that some companies now serve as matchmakers, connecting overseas clubs with American youth squads. One such partnership came in Aurora, where the Kickers Soccer Club forged a link with West Ham United, a Premier League team based in London.
Kickers director Luke Weaver has been happy with the union. Camps put on by West Ham coaches have been inexpensive and helpful, he said, and as the cost of professional talent soars — West Ham this summer paid nearly $21 million to secure the services of Mexican striker Chicharito — it makes sense to cast a wider net.
“It’s a matter of time before America produces a top, top player,” he said. “If you’re the team that sets up an academy in the suburbs of Chicago and finds that player first, it’s worth all the investment.”
Like other clubs, West Ham invites a few players to train at its home academy each year. Scotty Heinen, 18, of Aurora, made the weeklong trip last year and said he was put through the same program as the pros.
Though Heinen wasn’t invited to become a full-timer at the club’s academy — he will play in college this fall — he said it was still a great experience that taught him a lot about the game.