Members of the Snohomish United Youth Soccer Club Development Academy play in a scrimmage at Snohomish’s Stocker Fields on April 5. The club has eliminated any cost to play on its Development Academy teams. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Members of the Snohomish United Youth Soccer Club Development Academy play in a scrimmage at Snohomish’s Stocker Fields on April 5. The club has eliminated any cost to play on its Development Academy teams. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Snohomish United makes it free to play high-level youth soccer

The youth club hopes its move will help attract top players from low-income families.

Related: Snohomish United tryout dates and information

SNOHOMISH — Four times a week, Chris Soto hops in his father Luis’ car and heads down I-5 to travel to Stocker Fields in Snohomish. The 13-year-old from Mount Vernon is one of a handful of players from Skagit County who make the trip south to be a part of the Snohomish United youth soccer club’s Development Academy.

These are the type of players who wouldn’t normally be members of Snohomish United, or any other high-level soccer club. But Snohomish United is doing its part to try and provide opportunity to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it, and that in turn is designed to raise the level of soccer being played collectively.

United is offering its Development Academy program for free to its players, and the club is therefore becoming an entry point into a U.S. Soccer development system that can be difficult to crack for players from low-income families.

When the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, one of the major talking points was the country’s development system, which traditionally has made it difficult for players from low-income families to reach the highest levels because of the high cost of participating in youth soccer. Snohomish United, which is the competitive arm of the Snohomish Youth Soccer Club, wants to help change that.

“The reason we’ve made our programs free for the Development Academy is because it was one of the reasons why we weren’t successful qualifying for the World Cup,” Snohomish Youth Soccer technical director Scott Uderitz said. “We miss out on all these kids who can’t afford to play. We felt we could do our part, and it’s given us the opportunity to find kids who are really good, but maybe couldn’t afford to play soccer.”

Snohomish Youth Soccer is one of the stronger clubs in Snohomish County, with close to 2,000 registered players between its various programs ranging from rec to the Development Academy. United has had success advancing players to one of the state’s two U.S. Soccer Development Academy Programs, Crossfire Premier and Seattle Sounders FC. Currently there are four Snohomish United alumni playing for Crossfire: Hal Uderitz and Emanuel Vallejo are members of the boys U-19 team, Gerardo Vallejo is a member of the boys U-17 team and Beckham Uderitz is on the boys U-15 team. They credit Snohomish United for facilitating their move from the select level to the academy level.

“I felt that here at Snohomish United they really prepared us to play soccer at the next level,” Emanuel Vallejo said. “It was a place where we could really practice and perfect our skills.”

That in turn can lead to opportunities at even higher levels. The academy system has become the primary conduit in the U.S. to college and professional soccer. Get into the academy system and a player’s chance at receiving a college scholarship increases exponentially. That’s what it did for three other Snohomish United alumni, Nathan Aune, Kees Westra and John Magnus. All three played club soccer at United before moving into academies, Aune at Crossfire, Westra and Magnus with the Sounders. All three are now playing in college, with Aune and Westra at Seattle University and Magnus at the University of Washington.

“They pushed me to my limits and to further my career, because I didn’t really know where to go from there,” Westra said about United. “I was really kind of the first person in my family to go to a high level of soccer, or really any sport. We weren’t sure what the boundaries were, and the coaches here really pushed me and helped me realize what my potential was.”

Playing for Crossfire or the Sounders is free. However, reaching the point where an academy asks a player to join its program at the U-15 level can be an expensive process. Scott Uderitz estimated that it can cost a family an average of $2,500 a season to have a player on a top select team, and that is prohibitive for lower-income families.

That’s where Snohomish United is trying to make a difference. United’s Development Academy teams, the first of which was introduced two years ago, span the boys U-12, U-13 and U-14 age groups. By making the program free, it enables low-income players, some of whom were limited to Sunday leagues, to receive a higher caliber of coaching and competition, as well as be seen by academy scouts.

“It’s been really fun,” said Soto, who was the first player from Skagit County to join United’s Development Academy and is already on Crossfire’s radar. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot, gained a lot of experience, a lot of stuff I wouldn’t learn from a normal selection team.

“I want to move up to a higher level,” Soto added. “I want to make it to college soccer and hopefully earn a scholarship and a college degree.”

“We’re giving these kids an opportunity and hopefully they’ll take it and run with it,” Scott Uderitz said. “If they do a good job they can play here for free, they can move on to Crossfire and play for free, then more importantly go to college. Some of these kids, we can change their whole life by getting them an education. Some kids would never have gotten to do this, some will be first-generation college students. Then maybe it inspires their brothers and sisters where it becomes normal to go to college. So we think you can change generations if you do it the right way.”

Snohomish Youth Soccer’s scholarships extend beyond the Development Academy, as Scott Uderitz said the club’s goal is never to turn a player away because he or she can’t afford it. The club funds the scholarships through money raised from its three major tournaments — the Snohomish United Invitational and the Kla Ha Ya Days Adult Tournament in July, as well as the Snohomish Bigfoot Tournament in August — as well as from sponsorships and running clinics.

So far the Development Academy has been a success. On the boys side it grew from one to three teams after one year, and the goal is to add girls teams in the near future as Snohomish United continues to play its part in making elite youth soccer accessible to everyone.

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