By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
A high-level springboard. A prime-time platform.
Whatever you want to call it, Kitchener-Waterloo soccer players no longer need to leave town to play top-tier amateur soccer in North America.
And local soccer fans have the chance to enjoy the beautiful game in their own backyard while introducing themselves to Major League Soccer prospects and the continent’s future female football standouts, ones who are walking in the footsteps of Canadian legend Christine Sinclair and American icons Hope Solo and Abby Wambach.
KW United FC will hit the pitch in the men’s Premier Development League and the women’s pro-am W-League this spring after taking over the now-defunct Hamilton FC Rage franchise. The leagues operate under the umbrella of the United Soccer Leagues, a professional and amateur soccer organization that stretch from Canada to across the United States.
Sinclair, Solo and Wambach are all former W-League players.
The KW United men will play in the PDL’s Great Lakes Division with the Chicago Fire, Chicago Inferno, Toronto Lynx, Forest City London, Michigan Bucks and River City (Louisville, Ky.) Rovers.
The women will play in the W-League’s Central Conference with the Laval Comets, London Gryphons, Ottawa Fury, Quebec City Amiral and Toronto Lady Lynx.
Both teams are affiliated with the Kitchener Soccer Club — whose club teams will provide game-day support — and not the Canadian Soccer League’s SC Waterloo, which changed its named from KW United FC in 2012.
In return, all KSC athletes receive an inaugural season pass to the United’s home games and teams will be given grassroots development support by United players and coaches.
“The scope of this league is fantastic,” said president Barry MacLean, a longtime soccer coach at Wilfrid Laurier University and sports marketing executive. “This is an unbelievable platform . . . and an unbelievable opportunity for local players.”
Which means local prospects, ones like Kitchener natives Alyssa Lagonia and Bryce Alderson, no longer need to gallop for greener pastures when it comes to North American soccer development.
Lagonia spent her summers playing in Ottawa for the Fury, who won the North American championship in 2012. Meanwhile, Alderson joined the Vancouver Whitecaps’ under-23 academy team in the PDL’s Northwest Division as a 17-year-old after inking his first MLS contract.
Although PDL teams are allowed to import players from overseas — last season, Hamilton had players who had played for or attracted interest from the British Premier League academies — maintaining a local connection with local talents is a priority for Brett Mosen, K-W United’s director of football and men’s team head coach.
In 2012, about 60 to 70 per cent of the Rage’s roster was made up of local players, he said.
“You want this to be about local players as well,” said Mosen, who was part of the Hamilton franchise last season and has coached at all levels of the USL — pro, Division-2, PDL, W-League, Indoor League and Super Y League. “I think that’s where Kitchener Soccer Club comes in and the question about an academy.
“It gives them a route to come through.”
Tryout for both teams start in April and although player commitments have not been made official, Mosen said the club is in the process of an “extensive search” for talent in Kitchener-Waterloo and beyond.
The women’s team has yet to name its head coach, but MacLean said the hope is an announcement will be made soon.
The club is also hoping for strong community support and MacLean points to FC London, the Des Moines Menace or Orlando City as models for success. In Canada, London is the easiest pick to emulate — not to mention an easy pick as a potential rival — after winning the 2012 North American title and averaging about 1,500 fans per game, MacLean said.
“They’re a club to replicate for sure,” MacLean said, “but I have bigger goals than that.”
For starters, MacLean and Mosen both said they expect to pack Knight-Newbrough Field at University Stadium with 7,000 fans during the first K-W United home game on May 22, when the women host the London Gryphons.
MacLean pointed to some factors that should help. The number of players registered in the KSC alone is approaching 7,000 combined between indoor and outdoor programs. The region’s corporate base — particularly in the high-tech sector — and an 18- to 40-year-old demographic and diverse ethnic base that has an appetite for soccer is strong as well, MacLean said.
“What they created in Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver, some of those places (with MLS soccer), we want to have a smaller version of that locally,” MacLean added.
“Or as big.”