The World’s Game

Soccer on the rise in Lane County

The Kidsports Kinder Girls playing a match at Meadow View SchoolPhoto By Todd Cooper

Some might say that running is Eugene’s claim to fame, but the art of running while kicking a soccer ball has legions of fans in this town. Known as the world’s game, the sport has taken center stage in the states, particularly in the Northwest. It has grown so big in Eugene that some of Italy’s best female players have hopped on a plane to join in on the fun, while more and more of the city’s youth are getting into the game. And, if that isn’t enough, the possibility of Civic Stadium turning into a soccer field only adds to the buzz.

Italians kick it in Eugene 

The Eugene Metro Football Club (EMFC), created in 2006, is a soccer program serving the Eugene-Springfield area that welcomes both male and female soccer players from 4-year-old novices to adult professionals, who play on more than 30 teams at six different levels. Two 23-year-old Italian women, forward and midfielder Gala Mastrovincenzo and midfielder Eleonora Petralla, are coming to Eugene to play for one team this season: the EMFC Azul.

Why Eugene for some of Italy’s finest? The rise in popularity of soccer throughout the rest of the Northwest has influenced the Italians’ desire to play here. Evon Smith, Azul coordinator and founding president of the EMFC, believes a team called AC Seattle had some draw. AC Seattle, which debuts this season as part of the eight-team Women’s Premier Soccer League’s Northwest Division, was started by Italians and features an entire roster of Italian players. Their presence up north, Smith guesses, swayed Mastrovincenzo and Petralla to get in contact with Jürgen Ruckaberle, head coach of Azul and many other men’s and women’s EMFC club teams as well as South Eugene High School.

“They’ll both bring a particular kind of soccer that is played in Italy and a culture with them as soccer players,” Ruckaberle says. “And they are going to bring it to our club and combine with a very strong American brand of female soccer.”

ShayLee Miner currently plays for EMFC Havoc and will play for the University of Oregon this fall. Photo By Trask Bedortha.

Ruckaberle knows a little bit about bringing a different mentality and style of soccer to the U.S. He played and coached for years in his native Germany. The two Italian women he will now coach played for Riviera di Romagna, which plays at Italy’s highest level as a Serie A team in Bologna; last year they finished sixth out of 20 teams in the Serie A women’s league. Mastrovincenzo and Petralla arrived on May 20 but their reputations preceded them.

“With some of the women who were trying to decide whether they were going to try out for this team or not, I think that knowing that we’re having these two international players on our roster, in my mind, brought some real excitement,” EMFC’s Smith says, catching the eye of new UO head women’s soccer coach Kat Mertz. Smith says that Mertz “was very aware of the players from her team that were going to be on our roster and kind of navigating that, whereas last year Jürgen had to do a lot more work to get any of those players on our team.”

Kids in play

This local fútbol fever illustrates that it’s not just the Portland Timbers and their Timbers Army making noise anymore. The EMFC, which numbered just three teams seven years ago, now has four times that. This spring, approximately 4,450 kids ages 3 through 17 laced up their cleats for Kidsports and EMFC alone. Ruckaberle says nearly 300 players recently participated in tryouts for 17 of the teams, and that doesn’t even include the under-15 (U15) and under-18 (U18) teams. All age groups are well represented in EMFC, especially the short shooters.

“The club has significantly grown, and it has grown in areas where I want us to grow — the youth program,” Ruckaberle says. “It’s very important for us as a club to invest in the younger players. We’re trying to develop as many players in those younger age groups so that we can continue to produce a boys’ and a girls’ team at U18.”

And when they are too old to play on the U18 team, opportunities to play college soccer often await. “Last year, I had a U18 girls’ team where pretty much all but two or three players are playing in college now,” Ruckaberle says. “We serve, I think, that purpose that players who want to play college soccer can find a team to play in the different divisions there are.”

Ruckaberle says he coached a couple of players through EMFC last year who are now on the UO women’s team, and more will join them this coming fall. This is nothing new; colleges express interest regularly. “Every year, or every other year, we will have those players that will play on a D-1 college team,” he says, “or on a D-2 or D-3 depending on where they are academically and athletically.”

Ruckaberle says that in the last 10 years, competition has improved drastically, so it is no wonder soccer supporters are making an effort to find the sport a bigger stage.

The world’s game at Civic

That stage could be the vacant Civic Stadium, formerly the home of the Eugene Emeralds. Ruckaberle and Smith hope this possibility turns into reality.

“If someone puts the resources into that stadium and makes it a soccer place, it will be one of the biggest stadiums in the Pacific Northwest,” Ruckaberle says. “There is no doubt about it. It is beautiful. It feels like a soccer stadium. That’s the kind of stadium I played in when I grew up.”

“It’s really a huge place in my heart,” Smith adds. “As a kid I worked at the Ems’ stadium. I love that stadium, and so the idea of having soccer at that stadium is just the best of all pieces for me.”

Friends of Civic Stadium would love to see soccer there, too, but that’s not all they want. Dennis Hebert, chairman of the nonprofit group, is behind a proposal that would turn it into what he called “a field sports and community venue.”

The proposed venue, Hebert says, is favored by the EMFC, which wants the opportunity to play at that site. It would seat 4,500 and could be home to high school football playoffs and soccer tournaments, Hebert says, among other sporting events. Hebert thinks now is the time to act and put this proposal into action. “It’s a place that has a need right now,” he says, “and the community just needs to wake up and see it and grab hold of it now while it is still available.”

However, it’s not that simple. Among the obstacles standing in their way is whether 4J, which currently owns the land, will sell. And then, if 4J does, the city would enter the fray. “The city is going to have to sign off on this [proposal] because right now it is designated as PL, public land,” Hebert says, “so for any development to happen it’s going to have to go before the planning commission and the city. It is going to have to be compatible with the area and the neighborhood and the schools and everything else.”

The proposed “field sports and community venue” wouldn’t solely be the home to soccer; a little bit of everything can be played there — rugby, lacrosse, kickball and more.

“Those types of people have contacted us, and they would love to be able to utilize Civic,” Hebert says. In addition, other people who want to hold concerts, hot rod shows and “a smaller-scale Art and the Vineyard” have contacted Friends of Civic Stadium. “We have a lot of impetus from the community about what they would like to see and have,” he adds, “and it’s all pretty much local-oriented stuff.”

Hebert hopes that if built, the field sports and community venue would promote diversity. A smörgåsbord of sports, yes, but it all comes back to soccer.

“Saturday afternoon, you got a spot?” Hebert says. “Let’s have a Kidsports game, what the heck! Let’s have some 10-year-olds kicking the ball around and having a good time.”

Whether it is Kidsports or EMFC holding court on the turf, soccer is soccer. Italy has invaded the Northwest, more and more kids are lacing up their cleats and a historic stadium’s supporters can’t get the game off their minds. Oregon is now part of the international game, and thousands with a passion for the sport are doing their part to keep local soccer flourishing.

Soccer Cups in Eugene

The Eugene Metro Football Club’s 3v3 Challenge Cup will take place at Roosevelt Middle School from 8 am to 6 pm Saturday, June 1. Participation is up from the usual 100 teams — 120 boys’ and girls’ teams aged 6 to 18 from throughout Oregon are expected to play this year. The teams, made up of three to five players, hail from the Eugene-Springfield area, Bend, Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Brookings, Sherwood and Roseburg.

Come July 12-14, the Eugene Metro Football Club welcomes boys’ and girls’ teams aged 10 to 19 from across the U.S. to participate in the inaugural 11v11 EMFC Adidas Premier Cup Soccer Tournament. At press time, 50 teams were registered to compete, and 120 to 150 teams are expected. The teams will come from clubs throughout Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Three teams from Hawaii are also registered. Multiple venues throughout the Eugene-Springfield area will be home to the tournament, including at Lane Community College, Willamalane Sports Center, Spencer Butte Middle School, South Eugene High School and Churchill High School. The tournament takes place from 8 am to 8 pm July 12 and 13, and 8 am to noon July 14.

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