SoccerNation is spotlighting youth clubs from all over these United States of America. Powered by soccerloco, the SoccerNation Club Spotlight Series will take us all around Southern California and to special soccer spots across the country.
Our first stop is Las Vegas, as our own Nate Abaurrea talks with the Director of Heat FC, Eric McDonald, helping us learn all about the club, as well as the budding soccer culture of Southern Nevada.
Nate Abaurrea: First off, tell us about the area your club calls home. Tell us about the soccer history, the climate you deal with, the blessings given and difficulties faced. What is the soccer culture of Las Vegas like in 2017, and how does it relate to the overall sporting culture of the area?
Eric McDonald: Las Vegas Nevada, the gaming capital of the world! We’re in the middle of the desert, we all love it, and no one I know lives in a hotel on the strip. We call it the “Wild Wild West of Soccer”.
The community in many ways is much like any other community in the southwest, full of hard working families and great soccer players. Las Vegas is a very large sports town with a wide range of fans, as a lot of families have moved here and all have their favorite teams spread across the country.
For youth sports all the way into the turn of the millennium, the focus was primarily on baseball. We have several high-quality baseball facilities, and have placed a number of players from the area in the major leagues (Greg Maddux and Kris Bryant come to mind). The popularity of soccer has really taken off within the past 15 years. Soccer is now the most popular youth sport in Southern Nevada in terms of participation, with several leagues and clubs available all over the area, and three large soccer complexes (Bettye Wilson, Kellogg-Zaher and Heritage Park) to support the soccer community.
Soccer is basically a 9-month sport in Southern Nevada (September – May); the summers are too hot for outdoor soccer, but many teams play indoor soccer in the summer months. It does not rain much here, and our winters are mild, so our players can play continuously from September through May.
In terms of difficulties, there are many other sports and activities for kids to choose from, so we are constantly competing for market share.
Nate Abaurrea: What is the history of your club? When was it founded and what do you see as some of its most important moments thus far?
Eric McDonald: In 2001, there was a group of parents participating in a recreational soccer league who were very unhappy with the organization of games and development of players. They formed the SNSA (Southern Nevada Soccer Association). They were just regular soccer parents who wanted to build a rec league from the ground up and do it properly.
The most important moments for us were the formation of the HUYS (Henderson United Youth Soccer) recreational league, and the formation of Heat FC as a player development platform in 2003. We’ve seen the club and the culture mature so much and be around long enough for homegrown players from our rec leagues and development program in HEAT FC to succeed in soccer and as young adults with their own families.
Shortly before the formation of Heat FC, another significant event occurred; the HUYS Board hired Ric Grenell as the league’s Director of Coaching. Ric was a USSF A licensed coach, and he provided training for the HUYS recreational league coaches, and he also coached two teams for HUYS players that played in the Nevada South Youth Soccer competitive league. With Ric aboard and the league growing rapidly, the board decided that it was important to provide a separate program for those players that had the ability and commitment to play soccer at a competitive level, and in 2003 they officially established the Heat Football Club. At that time, Heat FC consisted of 3 boys teams; by 2008, the club had expanded to a total of 25 teams, 15 of which were girls teams. For the current soccer year, Heat FC has 88 teams, including 15 Heat FC teams based in Southern Utah.
Nate Abaurrea: What’s it like for soccer players to grow up in the Las Vegas area?
Eric McDonald: It’s dusty and hot! But Las Vegas is a place where soccer is loved. Players from Las Vegas definitely deal with some adversity, a lot of it having to do with it being a 24 hour town. Not all parents work what you might call a “typical shift”. So practices can be hard for some to make as younger players.
Las Vegas is also a small town in a soccer sense, so development is an issue. Lots of club jumping goes on and that is not good for any player. That aspect is improving though, and with organizations like US Club Soccer allowing Heat FC to compete in the ECNL, it has given our Las Vegas players the opportunity to be seen nationally against some of the top talent in the U.S.
Nate Abaurrea: Tell us a little more about your Boys ECNL program and your focus on getting players into college.
Eric McDonald: Again, being in a small soccer market compared to Southern California, this ECNL program will allow for our Las Vegas players to showcase their talents on a national stage. It will allow for maximum exposure for colleges as well as other high levels of American soccer. It’s a game changer for us.
Nate Abaurrea: What are some of the main ways in which you’ve seen your club grow over the years?
Eric McDonald: The long term development of young players from within the club is of great importance to us. We want homegrown players from within our recreational ranks to grow with the club. Most of our teams are made up of homegrown players. The addition of top level staff members has been huge in our growth, bringing in people who possess not only excellent playing backgrounds but also have the youth coaching background to go with it. And again, with the inclusion in the ECNL, a national platform has given our Las Vegas players a showcase environment to display their talents among the best players in the country.
Nate Abaurrea: What would you say are some of your club’s biggest strengths?
Eric McDonald: Patience! Our board of directors are not paid any kind of income from the club. They truly have the club’s best interests at heart, and the interests of the players and their families. Each board member is a community leader and they are in this for the betterment of Las Vegas Soccer families. It also allows for us to maximize every dollar we raise, and help it to go back to our member families.
Nate Abaurrea: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in running your club?
Eric McDonald: Groups constantly want to misinform young players and families about the club and club leadership. This is going to happen when you’re successful. Luckily for Heat FC, our parents who have been in the club aren’t easily fooled. However, the challenge is in the younger players and newer families, particularly with our rec program players. We believe recreational soccer is key to successful development, and there are other organizations that disrupt the balance of competitive and recreational soccer.
Nate Abaurrea: What would you say is the mission of your soccer club?
Eric McDonald: Our mission is to provide a club for every level of player to learn and enjoy the game and provide programs for each player to take the game as far as they can, from a rec player making a high school team or a competitive player making a national team and everything in between.
Nate Abaurrea: What are you most proud of in regards to your club?
Eric McDonald: It would have to be the staff and the players. The staff (which includes administrators, coaches, technical trainers, and board members) has been incredibly supportive of the club. Each staff-member has had a hand in making Heat FC what it is today. And the players… Because of their hard work and belief in the club prior to Heat FC being a nationally recognized name, all of our families and players will always be special to me and the club and I will always be extremely proud of them.
Nate Abaurrea: How would you assess the current state of youth soccer in America?
Eric McDonald: It’s in transition. Everyone including the Federation is doing what they think is best for youth soccer. I think it’s going to take a couple more seasons to see the clear path that is being set and for all of the youth clubs to get there. We feel strongly that the future is bright for American Soccer.
Nate Abaurrea: Do you think there is a 5 year plan in place for American club soccer?
Eric McDonald: I think the Federation has a plan for American soccer. Do I think it’s a five year plan? No. I feel they have a direction which they feel will benefit the American player and they need American clubs to develop the players at the grassroots level. I think the Federation wants successful and healthy American clubs and has a development plan for that. But again, I believe it’s in transition at this point and a strong clear plan will come out in the near future.
Nate Abaurrea: What have been some of the best aspects of your club working with soccerloco?
Eric McDonald: Shall I say Jessica!? She’s simply the best. soccerloco has allowed for HEAT FC to continue to grow by providing us the best support possible not only in the uniform department and with equipment but basically as a partner. soccerloco introduced us to NIKE as a long term partner and has helped us become the club we are today by being a partner rather than just a place to order uniforms. John Lococo and Jessica Whittaker are people that we consider part of our club. That probably sums it up best.
Nate Abaurrea: Who are some of your soccer idols, be them layers, coaches, community members, or anyone else that comes to mind.
Eric McDonald: There are many players from all around the world that I idolized as a kid. However, what made me into the person I am today with my passion for the youth game and the club game is the United States Women’s National Team of the 1990’s. They didn’t do it for the fame or the money. They did everything for pride and for the true love of the sport they wanted to grow. The U.S. women’s game is where it’s at today for youth players and professionals because of those women. In my book, they are all true American heroes.
Nate Abaurrea: What do you love most about the game of soccer?
Eric McDonald: It’s the beautiful game! It’s a true, through and through TEAM sport. I need you and you need me. That’s the bottom line, and you’ve got to love it!
(Stay tuned to SoccerNation.com for the next edition of our Club Spotlight Series, powered by soccerloco.)