BANGOR, Maine — Abby Pyne of Dixmont showed soccer players in Maine that they, too, could succeed after she earned a spot on the U.S. Soccer Association’s Under-15 Girls National Team last year.
Currently, she’s on the U.S. Soccer Association Region I Olympic Development Program U-16 team (1996 birth year).
Other players in Maine have similar hopes, and one, Opal Curless of Mount Desert, is also a Region I U-14 team member this year and has been chosen to compete for a spot on the U-14 national team.
“I was very excited to hear that,” said Pyne of her clubmate at Blackbear United Football Club of Bangor.
There soon could be more if SoccerMaine’s revamped Olympic Development Program, or ODP, setup leads to more and better soccer players.
Scott Gillespie, owner of Saco Fitness and Sport, an ODP coach and a Premier coach, has spearheaded the change after the number of ODP teams dwindled to less than a handful.
“I took over the program two years ago,” said Gillespie, who said he was one of the first ODP players in the late 1970s. “The program was struggling. Two years ago there were only three teams. The year before that, there were four.”
Now there are a full 10, one of each gender in each of the five age groups — U-13 (1999 birth year) to U-17 (1995 birth year).
The main reason for the dwindling participation was a strained relationship with the state’s Premier clubs (such as Blackbear United, Seacoast United of southern Maine, and the Portland Phoenix).
The program was nearly year-round, and the players, like now, were coming from the Premier teams. That created numerous schedule conflicts.
“We never really got the whole group together,” said MJ Ball, director of coaching and Premier programming for Blackbear. “I can’t remember a single time when we had all 18 players at the same time, except at tournaments.
“It also had a high cost with lots of travel.”
Gillespie came up with some ideas, solicited critiques of those ideas and redesigned the state’s program.
“My main goal was to strengthen the relationship with the Premier clubs [Phoenix, Blackbear, Seacoast and some smaller ones],” said Gillespie. “The benefit for them was their players compete at a higher level of play, the players at the club gain exposure [to regional and nationals teams] and colleges.”
The sour relationship between ODP and the premier clubs was reflected in the frequent losses when Maine teams went to the annual Region I tournament. Region I covers 15 associations in 13 states from the Virginias to Maine.
Those losses, some by double digits, were quickly reversed in 2011.
“Last year, eight of 10 teams won at least one game, and one swept its [three] games,” said Gillespie. “It was a phenomenal growth year, and I’m thrilled we were able to have 180 kids experience that.”
That’s because the new state format allows players to spend most of their time with their clubs.
“Now they’re only together for two training sessions and one tournament,” said Gillespie. “And it’s only $250 [to participate in ODP], so we’ve eliminated the [economic and geographic] barriers and benefit[ed] the clubs. It’s a true win-win.”
The startling improvement has focused attention on Maine.
“We are a model for other states now. Directors for New Jersey, Vermont, West Virginia and Delaware [have inquired about the program]. They want to know how we got so much better so quickly,” said Gillespie.
Noah Parker of Hampden and Anna-Maria Dagher of Veazie are two of the 39 members of Blackbear United who are spread among the 180 players on the 10 Maine ODP teams.
As second-year participants in ODP, they can see the benefits and also the expectations as they continue in it.
“They focus a lot on touching, control and what to do when you’re under situations such as pressure, like controlling the ball and receiving balls out of the air,” said Dagher, a freshman at Bangor High School. “That’s helped a lot after being in there, realizing what I needed to work on.”
Parker, a freshman at Hampden Academy, said, “I’ve really developed my skill with those great players. Speed of play [has] really increased as I’ve played ODP because you need to play quickly.”
Speed of play is a major factor in a player being promoted each year.
“At the next level, the players are not necessarily better, but they are faster,” said Ball. “There are two differences. One is athletic — running, jumping and moving. The other is the thought process. Can you transfer your thoughts to your feet faster than anyone else?”
The speed comes from the transition of a player receiving the ball and getting it onto his or her foot in as few touches as possible.
“When you play against Maryland, you’re going to to have to be very fast,” said Ball, whose U-13 girls shut out Maryland 3-0 last year.
There is another aspect of ODP that Ball particularly likes.
“The exciting thing about ODP,” he said, “is you get thrown out of your comfort zone. Then when you get to the next level, you get thrown out of your comfort zone again.”
Parker noticed that right away.
“I usually play in the midfield, that’s where I feel comfortable. But for ODP you’re supposed to play wherever they put you,” said Parker.
Pyne, a goalkeeper, has found the experience accelerating her improvement.
“You get to judge yourself on your strengths and weaknesses and work to correct them,” she said.
Sonja Parker, Noah’s mother, has noticed his progress.
“I was thrilled [he was picked for ODP] because it means so much to him, and I knew it would be great for him to play at a higher level,” she said.
“Playing in the ODP program has increased his confidence and has been a great way to improve his skills, both as an individual and as a teammate,” she added.
The Region I ODP tournament is June 8-10 in Princeton, N.J. Dagher is eager to go.
“I think our team is going to be a lot better this year,” she said. “Since we’ve played together last year, I think we’re going to have more of an advantage and do a lot better.”
After the region tournament, 300-400 players for each birth year and gender will be selected to go to the Region I camp the second week of July to find the best players in the region. Over the course of several days, players will be continually evaluated through games. At the end of camp, the top 50 in each group will be invited to a call-back camp. Those 50 will then be cut to 25 for their respective Region I team. Maine currently has four Region I team players, including Pyne and Curless.
Pyne, a sophomore at John Bapst in Bangor who has verbally committed to Duke, is grateful for the opportunities the program has presented.
“The ability to go from a small-town environment to flying to California to train with these great players wouldn’t have been possible without ODP,” she said.