AYSO is setting up for another year
By Gabriel Sanchez & Hays Blinkmann
As far as organizations go, this one is probably the largest in the Keys. The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) serves about 1,300 island kids every year. There are 105 teams Keyswide, dozens of community sponsors and just as many youth referees. That’s right — some kids play, some kids blow the whistle.
AYSO has a dedicated board, division coordinators and referees with a leadership flow chart to rival that of the United Nations. For every team, there are at least two parent volunteers — one coach, one assistant coach. These 200-plus volunteers follow AYSO directives: everyone plays, teams are talent balanced, and positive coaching and good sportsmanship matter.
“The program took off in the early 2000s in Key West and Homestead. Key West alone has grown to over 600 players,” said Mike Hartley, AYSO coach and father. He said the program goes beyond producing the next level of Olympians. “After the hurricane in 2005 all regions were up and playing soccer within two weeks of being allowed back in the Keys so we could try and get the kids’ minds off what the town looked like.”
Founders Park in Plantation Key is the official home of the Upper Keys Region 864, which includes kids from Tavernier, Long Key, and Ocean Reef. The season runs from mid-August to Thanksgiving. Kids from Region 864 in divisions U10 TO U16 will compete in the “Hurricane Cup” in mid-December. Coordinator Mark Turbessi said he expects about 34 teams and 400 players in his region alone.
AYSO also has a big role in the development of youth leaders. Last year, the organization had 25 youth referees in Key West, ages 10 and up, managing games on Friday and Saturdays. The skills and duties they learn prepare them for a lifetime of leadership and fair play.
“AYSO provides the youth with role models and a safe and fun place for the kids to be active and learn,” said Karl Markowski, referee administrator.
In Marathon, Region 705’s season begins practice after Labor Day. A week later, games begin and run through mid-November. This year, the region boasts more than a dozen teams and the younger teams are co-ed.
The Marathon Community Park fields are the official home for Region 705. Practices are held twice a week for all divisions, (except for the 4- and 5-year-olds), and games are typically held on Saturday mornings. Following the regular season for both Upper Keys and Marathon leagues, AYSO “All Star” teams will compete in playoff style tournaments. Kids from Marathon’s Region 705 in the U8 to U16 divisions will compete in the January “Conch Cup.”
“We are very excited preparing for this new season, planning our coaches and referees training classes, filling up volunteer positions, and taking care of the last details before the opening ceremony,” said Arno Silva, a regional commissioner.
“A group of trained volunteers have been running this program, making it the best experience for our kids to enjoy soccer,” said Silva of the 25-year-old local club. “AYSO Marathon’s goal is to continue helping our kids athletic development as well as socializing them with new friends.”
AYSO boasts 56 teams in Key West. An off-shoot of the program, Key West Strikers, is a travel soccer team for ages 8-15 that competes in tournaments throughout all of Florida.
Player Jack Behmke was one of the first generation kids to go through the program from start to finish, starting at age 3. He was on the team that first traveled to Cuba to play a friendly game in 2011 and won the 2010 and 2011 Championships with the Key West Strikers. Behmke not only played but worked as a referee and was Youth Volunteer of the Year in 2010 and 2016. He will head to Ohio State University this fall with a $1,000 AYSO scholarship in his pocket.
“It gave me a place to develop my skills both as a player and as a young man,” said Behmke, “I learned how to bridge relationships with people both on and off the field.”
It is never too late to volunteer and teams always need the help. It takes a village to run such an organization but the community support and dedication always shows at kick off. All AYSO registrants must sign up online. Registration is $110 per child with financial aid and sibling discounts available. Visit www.eayso.org for more information.
AYSO players are divided by age group:
(*Some regions may include both 4- and 5-year olds on U-6 teams, others have a separate U-5 division for 4-year-olds.)
YOUTH SOCCER PLAYERS:
— source: US Youth Soccer stats from 2008
The number of AYSO alums participating in the 2016 Olympics. They represent 15 sports ranging from cycling to swimming to water polo and, of course, soccer.
— source: AYSO
The estimated number of current youth soccer players in the United States.
— source: US Youth Soccer