HUNTINGTON - All eyes within the youth soccer world will be on West Virginia this weekend as the 2019 U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championships get underway at Barboursville Soccer Complex and Shawnee Sports Complex in Dunbar.
More than 260 teams from 15 different state associations have traveled the interstates and turnpikes from their various locations to come to central and western West Virginia to find out who exactly the best soccer teams are within the region during the weeklong competition, which runs from Friday to Thursday.
"It's going to be a great week of competition," said Len Rogers, president of the West Virginia Soccer Association. "We've hosted several of these events before, but this one is going to be the biggest that we've taken on. It goes for a week now, where it used to only be five days, and that's huge for us."
For many of the teams within the tournament, the goal is to be spending the Fourth of July holiday in West Virginia, which would mean they will be playing for a regional championship.
While pool play is split between Barboursville Soccer Complex and Shawnee Sports Complex, all championship round play takes place at the new Shawnee Sports Complex, which is home to many artificial surface fields. The artificial turf allows for gameplay in any weather, which has been a big boon for the state's ability to host major events.
Ben Salango, Kanawha County commissioner, is one of the major braintrusts behind the Shawnee Sports Complex, but even he marveled at how quickly the complex at Shawnee has grown from a pipe dream to hosting championship-level soccer.
"Just less than two years ago, I sketched the Shawnee layout on a bar napkin," Salango said. "To now actually have it running and competing on a national level is a thrill. I'm proud of the work that we are doing and I'm proud of our staff."
The work of the Kanawha and Cabell county commissions, the state of West Virginia, the West Virginia Soccer Association, numerous volunteer organizations and individual volunteers has produced sweat equity that has brought the state a tournament that could yield in excess of $20 million over the next seven days for the state.
While the monetary gains are of obvious benefit, the exposure aspects of having visitors from the realm of sports tourism goes well beyond for the future of the state.
As for the tournament itself, there are eight divisions for both boys and girls, ranging from U-12 through U-19 with anywhere from nine to 20 teams in a given division.
Pool play runs from Friday to Sunday before Monday is a day of rest, which allows the various players and their families to go experience what West Virginia is all about. Championship rounds resume at Shawnee Sports Complex on Tuesday and run through Thursday.
"Monday is a day of rest for teams," Rogers said. "It won't be for us because we'll be shuffling things from Barboursville to Shawnee to get ready for the championship rounds, but during that time, teams will be taking in West Virginia and really seeing what our state has to offer. That is exposure that no other sporting event in West Virginia offers. It's really huge for our state."
Soccer exposure within the state has also thrived over the past decade of the tournaments frequenting West Virginia, which is a residual effect that Rogers enjoys.
Within the tournament, there have been former Team USA players whom have served as coaches or managers for various teams within one of the 15 state associations represented.
There have also been several players take to the field who have moved on to don the jersey for one of Team USA's sides in international play.
In the end, both sides are seeing it as a win-win, as Salango pointed out from his talks this week with Brad Roos, U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championship committee chairman.
The state of West Virginia gets exposed to championship-level soccer, which helps improve play for the youth here in the Mountain State.
And U.S. Youth Soccer sees one of its marquee events benefit from the availability of various turf and natural grass fields within a close proximity between the two complexes while bringing with it the West Virginia hospitality that has landed the state on the U.S. Youth Soccer radar for many major events in the past 11 years.
In terms of partnership, the experience of the Barboursville staff combines with the state-of-the-art facility now available at Shawnee, which enhances the tournament experience for all involved.
"Now that folks are starting to see what goes on when you bring in large tournaments, I believe they are embracing it and understanding it a bit better," Salango said. "Barboursville has been doing this for a while with U.S. Youth Soccer, and adding Shawnee has enabled us to host larger tournaments and (host) more frequently."
As Salango and Rogers both pointed out, West Virginia's thumbprint within U.S. Youth Soccer does not end with the 2019 U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championships, either. The two facilities are slated to team up for the 2020 U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Presidents Cup and the 2020 U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championships, as well.
Champions from the 2019 U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championships will move on to compete in the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, which take place in Overland Park, Kansas, from July 22-28.