DUNBAR, W.Va. - Youth soccer in West Virginia has grown from its infant stages and is reaching adolescence. In the eyes of Adam Arthur, director of FC Alliance West Virginia's Southern Division, the sport has gone from crawling to walking, and now it wants to start running.
That's what makes tournaments like the U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championships, concluding Thursday at Shawnee Sports Complex, so helpful for the Mountain State's youth soccer programs, regardless of how they do in them. The best way to get to the top level is to see what others at the top level are doing to stay there.
One West Virginia team, FC Alliance Athletica out of Morgantown, reached the regional's knockout stages, falling to Beadling 2001 South Red out of Pennsylvania in the U-18 girls semifinals. Yet West Virginia teams more than held their own throughout the tournament.
That, Arthur said, is the rung state teams want to be on right now on the soccer ladder. It used to be something those teams aspired to.
"It used to be that, if we win state cup, sure, we'll go to regionals," Arthur said. "We know we'll get our butts kicked, but it'll be great to see what's out there and how good you're supposed to play and what you've got to do to get there. That's always what used to be the mindset.
"We went into this year with a similar mindset, where we didn't expect to win games, but we always want to compete. We want to keep the scores respectable."
Youth soccer in West Virginia, its coaches say, has been pretty much built from the ground up over the last decade. They started developing soccer players in classes before they hit kindergarten and now those former toddlers are in their teenage years with a deep training history behind them. That has allowed those youth squads to evolve to a point where regional contests are now actually being contested instead of being formalities.
Yet it's important to remember that, while soccer in the state is maturing, it hasn't completely grown up.
"We're here and we fight these little proxy wars in West Virginia about who's got the best team," said Alex Fatovic, former executive director of the West Virginia Futbol Club who recently took an assistant coaching job at Columbia University. "In reality, there are so many more levels we need to get to as a state."
Arthur offered the example of FC Alliance 05B, a Morgantown-based boys team. It had been beating other West Virginia teams handily. It finished pool play at the Eastern Regionals undefeated at 1-0-2. Yet it didn't advance to the knockout stage.
That's a helpful point for players of that caliber, Arthur said. The team tasted success and could be proud of the way it competed, but still got reminded that competition outside of the Mountain State is no joke.
"It's a great wake-up call for players who just turned teenagers and they think there's nothing better than them out there," Arthur said. "When you go and put them on the regional stage, they can see there are players out there better than them and they have work to do."
Arthur sees the progress that the teams around West Virginia have made so far, and can see the promise in the future. There are still steps to go, as players gain a greater understanding of what it takes to become a national-level talent.
Part of that, Arthur said, is essentially spending their days with a soccer ball at their feet, not just during club practices. When fervor for the sport reaches that point, West Virginia soccer can start climbing more rungs. The state's coaches aren't going to be content to remain on the rung they currently occupy.
"Our end goal is to win a regional," he said. "It's a high goal. We have that big end goal, and we go out and do our best."