ARGOS — If you were a Major League Soccer club scouting locations to hold a youth soccer camp, the little town of Argos with its population of less than 1,700 nestled in rural Marshall County is likely not the first place you’d think of. Yet when North Central Soccer Association President Bill Mills and fellow Argos Futbol Club coach Andy Stone reached out to the Chicago Fire to host such a camp, the marriage made for a pretty nice fit.
The Argos Community Park played host to a recreational youth soccer camp this week as part of the Fire’s summer camp program, and the result was deemed a success by camp organizers, instructors and participants alike.
“Argos is a very small town. I believe in the city limit we’re around 1,500 and the extended area is around 2,500, and every year we have between 200 and 250 kids playing soccer,” said Mills. “That’s quite a percentage. And our facilities are spectacular. We’ve got a really nice field, we’re kind of central to everybody, and it’s great to have it here. For the money and the location, you can’t beat this camp.”
“Considering the size of the town, the talent I think is really good,” said Fire camp instructor Andrew Cornell. “I was talking to Andy, and he was saying this town is just for soccer. You haven’t got a lot of sports — like a lot of other places are spoiled with choices, but here they’ve just got so much passion, so much motivation to play. I was working with some of the older groups, and it was just really great to work with the talent that was there.”
The camp, which was held in two sessions daily from Monday through Friday, focused on teaching skills and then applying those techniques in controlled small-sided games. At the end of each session, players used what they’d learned in a light-hearted scrimmage that included instructors as well as campers.
Turnout for the camp was around 80 players a day mostly from the North Central Soccer Association’s territory — an area encompassing the neighboring communities of Argos, Plymouth, Culver, Rochester, Bremen, Walkerton, Starke County, Fulton County, and the Lakeville and Lapaz area — but campers from as far away as Elkhart and Granger also turned out to receive professional instruction in the beautiful game.
While it wasn’t a bad start, Mills is already planning a sequel for next summer, and he believes the numbers can be even better next year.
“It’s a pretty big turnout. The NCSA usually runs between 1,600 and 2,200 kids, so we got about half a percent if that works out right. I would love to get it up around one to two percent and eventually maybe five percent of the kids,” he said. “I know it’s summer, school’s just out and everybody wants to go on vacation, but if they’re looking for a camp you’ve got Notre Dame and you’ve got IU. You’ve got to travel all that distance, it’s a lot more expensive. This camp is $120 and you get a ball, a shirt, they get to go to a Fire game and warm up on the field, they get a player evaluation which tells them what the coaches saw out of them at the camp and what they can improve on.”
Although this week’s Argos camp was Mills’ initiative, it was part of a larger Chicago Fire youth program that puts on camps during a seven-week period throughout the summer at the recreational, competitive and advanced levels. Three instructors — Cornell, Patrick Kelleher and Martyn Thomas — led players in a variety of exercises and handed out evaluations at the end of the camp.
“It’s all about getting the players on the first rung of the player development ladder,” said Thomas of the Fire camp program. “Us three, we work at the very bottom, which is the rec, and then the one above is competitive, so after this is the competitive camp. We’re looking to get players into that next bubble before they go onto the elite performance pathway and then hopefully make careers in the MLS if possible.”
While soccer’s popularity is on the rise in the U.S., the game doesn’t often generate the biggest headlines, and for Mills the camps are about drawing a connection between the youth and professional levels of the sport and giving young players a goal to work toward.
“Most of the sports in this area, there’s a connection between the youth game and the professional game, and all the young people aspire to be that professional. They dream of that, and it gives them something to strive for,” he said. “I found that kind of lacking in the soccer world seeing as on my satellite dish I had to get a special package in order to be able to see professional soccer games on a regular basis. So I contacted the Chicago Fire… and we talked about being able to do a camp down here in Argos open for the NSCA, which is eight local towns, and any of the travel clubs in the area. I got the ball rolling and got pretty good feedback from coaches and players.”
For anyone new to the area — and Cornell, Thomas and Kelleher, who hail from England and Ireland by way of Chicago are certainly that — Argos may not seem like the ideal place to host an MLS-sponsored soccer camp. But the town has a unique history with the sport that helped make it a good fit for the Chicago Fire camp program.
That history began in 1963 when Argos High School made the unusual decision to offer soccer in lieu of football, and the Dragons became the first public school soccer program in the state a full 11 years before the IHSAA began sanctioning the sport. Argos became the first state champion in the IHSAA’s inaugural soccer tournament in 1973 and went on to become the first multiple state championship winner with two more titles in 1976 and 78. More recently, the Argos boys and girls soccer teams earned back-to-back dual regional championships in the Class A state series last fall.
“For us, we don’t have a lot of students, so back in 1963 when the school decided to choose soccer as a sport, it came down to the number of students and the cost effectiveness,” explained Stone. “Obviously soccer compared to football, you don’t have one-tenth the amount of expense on gear or any of that stuff. You’re mowing the grass anyway, you basically throw a ball out there and a goal, and you’re ready to go.
“I basically told them if you’re doing anything with soccer — because they were a little bit nervous and wondering if it was going to be this or that — but I said if you’re doing anything with soccer in this community it’s going to be successful.”
The instructors agreed they were pleasantly surprised with the level of play they saw from area campers.
“A very good standard. It kind of surprised me. I’ve done camps in Chicago and New England, and this is right up there with any of them yet,” said Kelleher.
“We were kind of surprised by the number of kids who actually preferred soccer over what would be considered the stronger sport here, football. Everyone seems to love soccer here. It’s a good thing.”
Along with the obvious benefit of soccer instruction and camp fun, players also enjoyed the cross cultural contact they had with three instructors from England and Ireland. It was a two-way street for Kelleher, Thomas and Cornell, who have been in the U.S. for several years now but reside in Chicago and rarely travel to towns as small as Argos.
“My kids are getting a lot of exposure to different cultures and whatnot, so it’s been really, really great for me,” said Stone, whose family hosted the three coaches during their stay in Argos. “We’ve had a few conversations, and they were talking about how the people in America are so much more friendly compared to London. Especially in this area. Everybody just waves, and they say we’re not used to that. We live in a flat next to people that are five yards apart and you may not talk to your neighbor in six months, eight months, and you walk past them almost every day. So it’s been a culture shock.”
“It’s just completely different. Food’s different, just everything’s different,” said Cornell. “But it’s cool, I really like it. It’s nice to have the space and the time to yourself, and Andy has just made it brilliant for us. His house and everything that was his was ours for the week. It was really good; really good kids as well.”
“A lot different than what we’re used to. Living in Chicago it’s busy nearly every day. Here you can just drive for miles and miles of countryside,” said Thomas. “I really enjoy it, and the family we stayed with is great. They’ve been a great help to us and made the stay even more enjoyable, and the kids we’re coaching up as well.”