Soccer growth in Rock Hill matches national popularity

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJune 25, 2014 

Rich Posipanko arrived in Rock Hill in 1989, when soccer was less than an afterthought.

But a look at the city now – with the sparkling Manchester Meadows facility, a top-40 national youth club, a semi-professional team and a strong college program supporting it all – reveals the change that’s occurred over the last 20 to 25 years.

“Twenty years ago, you didn’t have the facility, you didn’t have the coaching, you had nothing,” said Posipanko, the longtime Winthrop men’s soccer coach and New Jersey native. “The only thing you had going here was the weather was good.”

Rock Hill’s soccer progression in some ways mirrors the gains the sport has made throughout the U.S. While some observers of the 2014 World Cup may be new to the sport, this Brazilian event has seen the further expansion of the sport’s American fan base.

Twenty-five million Americans watched Sunday’s U.S.-Portugal match, only about a million viewers short of the BCS Championship game in January.

It was the most viewed non-NFL sporting event ever aired on ESPN’s networks, and the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. The media website Awful Announcing compared 2014’s World Cup TV ratings to the 2006 edition and found that overall average per-game viewership was up 116 percent (from 1.72 million to 3.72 million) and viewership was up 83 percent in the crucial sports demographic of 18- to 49-year-old males.

Rough start

Some may herald this World Cup as the moment soccer truly made an impression in the U.S. Wrong. The 1994 World Cup was the watershed moment for American soccer because it spawned all of the sport’s growth in this country – and Rock Hill – that’s occurred since.

High school and club soccer in the Rock Hill area were mired at very low levels for much of the 1990s. Ian Davidson, Mark Bollinger and his wife, Marsha, were the driving forces behind the original Rock Hill Soccer Club. They realized they needed some soccer expertise and added former Winthrop player Gary Baker as a full-time director of coaching. In 1999, Baker changed the name of the club to Discoveries, after the youth club he had played for in England.

The first 10 years of the 21st century saw the game’s growth speed up, in Rock Hill and nationally. Charles Coulson, a freshman on Winthrop’s soccer team and a former Rock Hill High Bearcat, was born in 1995, the year after the seminal World Cup that changed the trajectory of the sport forever in this country.

“I came into Discoveries when I was 8 years old and they didn’t even have a U-8, U-9 group. I had to play up two age groups and we had girls on our team,” said Coulson.

World Cup impact

But after the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the female version of the game also exploded in popularity, at least at the youth level. Discoveries soon had a number of team for both genders, especially girls, who began playing varsity high school soccer in the area around the same time. And Winthrop players such as Baker graduated from school, but then stayed in the community to coach with Discoveries.

The biggest development for Rock Hill’s soccer scene in the last 14 years, at least, was the creation of Manchester Meadows. As the Discoveries club and interest in soccer ballooned, the city and county began to run out of quality fields. Manchester Meadows would probably still be a festering waste treatment site were it not for the big bang of 1994. The eight-field soccer complex was constructed in 2006 with the price tag of $12.7 million, the kind of investment for a city of nearly 60,000 people like Rock Hill that would have been unfathomable in 1993.

“That took soccer in this community to another level,” said Posipanko. “All soccer people could rally around it.”

Just three years later, the city experienced its greatest soccer triumph, when Discoveries 90 Green won the U.S. Youth Soccer U-18 National Championship. The team, coached by Northwestern High School coach Dom Wren, another former Winthrop player that stuck around post-graduation, included Enzo and Alex Martinez, both professional soccer players, along with the Benton brothers, Sebastian Velasquez, who plays in MLS, and Shawn Ferguson, who plays in USL with the Charleston Battery. Discoveries 90 Green became the first club team from South Carolina to win a national championship.

“For a town this size, I don’t think people can understand how unbelievable it was for a team to win a club championship,” said Posipanko.

Futbol City USA?

Winthrop, which has made the NCAA Tournament five times since 2002, and Discoveries have been integral in spurring soccer forward in Rock Hill. Recently, they combined again, albeit unofficially. FC Carolina Discoveries began play in the semi-pro National Professional Soccer League this summer, using Manchester Meadows as its home patch, and sporting a number of current and former Winthrop players in its playing and coaching staff.

Thanks to Winthrop, Rock Hill has always had a more cosmopolitan soccer scene compared to many similarly-sized American towns. Discoveries’ roster boasts players from Uganda, Brazil, Spain, England, Albania and several other countries, many of whom played for Winthrop. But the legions of kids that wear the Discoveries’ colors in under-12 and under-14 teams on Saturday mornings is much more indicative of the continued spread of the game in the U.S. There’s good reason to believe that trend will continue, as soccer fans and players such as Coulson grow older.

“Twenty years later, these are the guys that are playing in college now, that were born in that era,” said Discoveries coach David Carton, an Irishman who played at Winthrop and is the executive director of Discoveries’ youth soccer. “When their parents really got involved in the game and their influence on their kids, the benefits from that, you’re starting to see that now.”

The perception has changed too, especially in Rock Hill. Manchester Meadows hosted the 2012 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, pumping tourism dollars to the local economy. Winthrop has continued to excel in the Big South Conference with an international flavor. And Northwestern’s string of state championships played well in a town used to pigskin success, while the continuing careers of the Martinez brothers have given the area’s young people soccer role models to admire.

“As I’ve grown up it’s gotten a lot more respectable,” said Coulson, a 6-foot-4 striker. “My friends at early ages were wanting me to play football, basketball. Soccer’s been taking off and a lot of my friends have been watching World Cup with me and can’t wait to come watch some Winthrop games. They’ve been real excited about it.”

The fervor will likely die down after the World Cup concludes early next month. But the impact has been made, the core base of soccer fans in Rock Hill and the United States again expanded. The FIFA soccer video game and constant airing of English Premier League and Major League Soccer on TV will only help to take the game forward during the coming years.

Rock Hill may never be Futbol City USA. But talking over the subject Wednesday morning, Posipanko sat in the clubhouse between Winthrop’s track and soccer complex, overlooking a sea of about 100 kids taking part in the Eagles’ summer soccer camp.

“I look at all these little kids out here,” he said. “It’s only gonna get better.”

Bret McCormick •  803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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