ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It can’t match the spectacle or impact of the World Cup, but this week’s 2014 US Youth Soccer Far West Regional Championships will deliver some serious kick to New Mexico.
Beginning Monday, the weeklong youth soccer tournament will draw 237 teams from 13 Western states to the New Mexico Soccer Tournament Complex near Bernalillo.
That means lots of soccer players, coaches, officials and even more friends and family members providing a major economic boost to the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metro areas.
“It’s a good thing for business and a good thing for our kids to play such high-level soccer in their home state,” Jim Tilley, New Mexico Youth Soccer Organization executive director, said. “We bid for this event every year.”
As one might imagine, so do other states.
NMYSO and US Youth Soccer officials estimate the Far West Regionals will attract about 20,000 visitors over a nine-day span, with most staying in Albuquerque and its surrounding areas for five to six days. Tilley said nearly 18,000 hotel room nights have been booked in conjunction with the tournament.
“You’ll lose some of those because teams go home when they’re eliminated,” Tilley said, “but we expect it to end up at around 13,000 (hotel room nights). That’s a significant number.”
Many visiting families tend to schedule vacations around the event, which is music to the ears of local business owners. NMYSO and US Youth Soccer project $4.7 million in direct spending and nearly $15 million in total economic impact from the tournament.
New Mexico is hosting the Far West Regionals for the fifth time since 1998 but the first since 2010. Last year’s tournament was in Hawaii, but Tilley said having a 22-field soccer complex gives New Mexico a bidding advantage.
“We’re lucky because not a lot of states have a complex that can host it,” Tilley said. “There are really only seven in the West, so we tend to get it every three or four years.”
Also known as the Region IV Championships, the Far West Regionals feature boys and girls teams in eight age divisions, U12 through U19. It is one of four US Youth Soccer regionals being contested this week.
The tournament follows a World Cup-style format, beginning with three days of round-robin group play. Most teams are off Thursday, and those that advance from group competition move to bracket quarterfinals Friday. Semifinals are Saturday, followed by championships Sunday, June 22.
Regionals represent the end of the line for U12 and U13 teams, but winners of the other age divisions advance to the US Youth Soccer National Championships on June 22-27 in Germantown, Md.
From a geographic standpoint, the Far West Region is US Youth Soccer’s largest by far. It encompasses Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Within the region, populous California tends to dominate. The state is divided into two associations (Cal North and Cal South) and has more regional teams entered in this week’s tournament than many of the other states combined.
Cal South has been particularly strong at the regional level. Its champions are frequently seen as the teams to beat in most age divisions.
“Cal South has the numbers,” said Justin Sells, who is coaching three teams this week and is technical director for New Mexico Rush. “They always have good talent and good programs, and I’m sure that’s true again this year.”
How dominant has Cal South been? In 2013 Cal South teams won 11 of 14 Far West Regional titles in the U13 to U19 age divisions. By comparison, New Mexico has won six in event history.
It’s a good bet Cal South teams will lock up a few more titles this week. Between its local age-division champions and wild-card entries, Cal South has 36 teams in this year’s regional field.
Even if they won’t be favored, New Mexico’s 16 regional teams are looking forward to taking their shots at a title. Several local squads have competed at the regional level enough times to come in comfortable and confident.
That includes Rio Rapids SC ’97, which will compete in the boys U17 bracket. Most of the players have been together through a run of five straight State Cup championships and have advanced out of regional group play three times.
“A lot of these guys have actually been together since U9,” coach Jason Moran said, “so it’s a seasoned, balanced team. We won a regional event (National Premier League) last week, too, so I think the guys are feeling pretty good.”
Several other New Mexico squads also performed well at the NPL Mountain Regionals in Boulder, Colo., but most of US Youth Soccer’s Far West Region states (including California) did not have teams in that event. This week’s competition figures to be significantly tougher.
Still, New Mexico’s players and coaches will enjoy something of a home-pitch advantage competing in high desert conditions.
“I think it helps a lot playing here,” Sells said. “With the altitude and the heat, I think our teams have a real advantage.”
“Most of the states have (high altitude or heat),” he said, “but not both. Personally, I’m hoping for a really hot week.”
Players from all around New Mexico, including some who are now members of out-of-state college soccer teams, will participate in the Far West Regionals. However, 15 of the 16 New Mexico teams represent either Rio Rapids SC or New Mexico Rush. The U16 boys Classic FC Toros are the lone exception.
As a result, several Rio Rapids and NM Rush coaches will be working with two teams this week. Sells is the only New Mexico coach with three teams in the field.
“The preparation is pretty crazy,” said Sibby Browne, who coaches the Rio Rapids U13 and U15 boys entries. “Once you get to the games it’s almost a relief. At that point you just show up, play your best and see what happens. This is what we all look forward to.”