By Ed Morrone, Digital Communications Manager
DOWNINGTOWN (September 7)—One of the most-anticipated events of the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer year arrived on Saturday: the first day of Olympic Development Program (ODP) tryout weekend.
While additional locations in Philadelphia, Montgomery County, the Lehigh Valley, Scranton, Harrisburg and Lancaster will host tryouts a day later on Sept. 8, a plethora of boys aged 13-17 converged on a handful of fields at the United Sports Training Center (USTC) in Downingtown for their first opportunity to make an ODP squad in their respective age groups. The 13U hopefuls from Chester County and the 14U South candidates trained and ran drills from 3-5 p.m. before clearing out and giving way to the 15U, 16U and 17U participants.
The glorious, sunny day with temperatures near 80 degrees offered perfect conditions for a talent pool that brings together the best players and coaches in eastern Pennsylvania with their eyes on the ultimate prize: competing at the regional and national levels.
Ultimately, the coaches will select teams for age groups 12U to 17U, but that will come later, after more tryouts next weekend and two additional rounds of callback tryouts in late September and October. Today was just the first step, albeit a big one, and it represented excitement and hope for all of the players and coaches who turned up.
"We want to make sure the kids get both good exposure and coaching," Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Technical Director Mike Barr said. "It's exciting for the kids to be here, as well as for the coaches to restart. I like seeing new kids arriving and working so hard to be successful."
Rick Tompkins, the former President of Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer, has been coaching ODP for almost 30 years. Last season, his 15U boys team were regional champions, and Tompkins returned to coach the same group that's now another year older at 16U. Tompkins recalled former ODP standouts Chris Albright, Ben Olsen and Jim Curtin — all of whom went on to play professionally, with the latter two now coaching at the professional ranks — to illustrate where the ODP program can lead you. For others, the exposure will simply lead to opportunities to play in high school and college.
"To me, it's one of the best programs the organization offers," Tompkins said. "It gives us the opportunity to develop young players and hopefully make them into the best they can be. Some will become very good high school and college players. Simply, it's supposed to put the best players with the best coaches, and I'm honored to even be selected to participate. The most exciting part is that every year, it's an opportunity to impact new players, and that's rewarding for everybody."
While Tompkins got to see some familiar faces from last year's team that he coached to a regional title, other coaches like Tom Dodds got to meet a lot of new players. Dodds coached the 17U team last season and is now with the 15U boys.
"I look forward to building this team," Dodds said. "We have a big number of over 80 players trying out and I don't know any of them, so I look forward to seeing them and how it works out after a couple tryouts. We've got four of them to make our squad and then work to to play for a Region I championship. I look forward to the first day of tryouts. It's a lot of fun being with high quality players, as always."
While the positional players were scattered across a handful of fields, the goalies were sequestered to one of their own to perform specialized training drills throughout the day. Simon Robinson, Head Goalkeeping Coach of the ODP program, was brimming with excitement as the sun began to tuck behind the clouds and the clock approached 7 p.m. Day one was almost in the books, but Robinson was all smiles.
"I saw a lot of quality in the group already," said Robinson, in his 9th year with ODP. "It was great to see some leadership, and there was a lot of focus on improving and being coachable. It makes my job very difficult having to start dwindling these boys down to the appropriate number for each team. It was a great first tryout, and I was very happy with what I saw. The future is bright."
Robinson's sentiment illustrated an unfortunate point that not everybody who tries out will make a final roster. However, as Barr also emphasized, it's not a big deal to get cut, because "it teaches the kids how to handle failure." Whether you make a team or not, ODP tryouts are full of life lessons, and everybody who showed up on Saturday got to witness that firsthand.
ODP is an elite-level program that brings out the best in all of its participating players, but at the same time, it's a reminder that the game of soccer is as great as it is fun, and the coaches don't want the kids to ever lose sight of that fact.
"We want it to be as competitive and intense as it can be," Tompkins said. "But at the same time, it has to be as fun as possible so that people come back and say, 'I played for Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer.'"