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Lines are drawn in soccer club battle

By ANDREW MEACHAM
Published February 23, 2007


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Forty-five adults and about 10 children crowded into a cold meeting room on a Sunday night to find an answer to one question:

What is happening to the Valrico Soccer Club?

Its board of directors has replaced three members who resigned in the past three months. A fourth board member walked out of the meeting and later said he also would resign.

No one blinked.

The board approved an interim director for its recreational league to replace a husband-and-wife team dismissed by training director Derek Smethurst.

The dismissal increased a tug-of-war between parents of recreational players and those in a more competitive "select" league. The dispute boils down to one question: When is a child too old to play soccer simply for the fun of it?

Since registration for the spring season began Feb. 3, 40 recreational players and at least two coaches have withdrawn.

In the meantime, county parks director Mark Thornton has told the club to revise Smethurst's contract or risk losing its home base at Dover's Keith Waller Park.

Board members call their legal issues minor and say they are complying with Thornton's request.

About two-thirds of the league's 900 members play in the informal "D" league. The rest play in the more competitive select division. Registration for D league costs $75 a season. Select players pay $625. The extra costs cover a $325 training fee to Smethurst, extra officials and travel.

More important to parents of recreational players, their league is informal, friendly and relaxed.

"It's kind of small town soccer," said Bill Inch, the board member who left in the middle of Sunday's meeting.

"There is a personal touch. But I'm seeing a change with the direction they apparently want to go in."

Age-limit controversy

Since 2004, the age limit for recreational players has been marching in its own direction: up. That's the year the club raised it from under 13 at the time of registration to under 14. The limit increased to under 15 in 2005, then 16 in 2006.

That's a trend some parents and board members think should be reversed.

"We're trying to maintain five fields and that's become a physical impossibility," board president Mike Hacker said.

The league voted to allow recreational players under 16 to play in the spring season that starts March 31.

Hacker recommended that the age limit for D-league players be capped at 14, the year most will enter high school.

"Sure you love to play soccer, but that's not what the program was set up for," Hacker said.

As Hacker reminded parents, "D" stands for developmental, a feeder system for developing select players.

Parents complain

Until December, Bill and Debbie Hofrichter ran the developmental league as a destination, a low-key place to play soccer.

Smethurst, a former professional soccer player, got rid of the Hofrichters in December, an action board members defended on Sunday, due to "philosophical differences."

The Hofrichters were never told what the philosophical differences entailed and Hacker wouldn't discuss it.

Several parents complained to Thornton about Smethurst's contract, which allows him to be paid directly for training fees.

Parents of select-division players then fired off e-mails to parents and coaches of D-league players who sat on the board, like this one to the Hofrichters:

"I am sure there is some principle or moral that you are hiding behind to justify your actions but more and more you are just looking like some desperate, bitter and rejected human being. Kind of like a wounded animal that lashes out b/c its hurt."

Contract questions

Thornton reviewed Smethurst's contract after getting complaints from several parents.

He questioned a stipulation that allowed Smethurst to collect training fees directly from parents, whether they had children in the Valrico Soccer Club or not.

"He can't do private lessons for everyone in the county as his own little business on the side," Thornton said.

Smethurst didn't attend Sunday's meeting and couldn't be reached for comment.

As part of a parks master plan, the county is building 15 new fields over the next 15 months in Summerfield, in the FishHawk Ranch area and the J.C. Handley Recreation Complex.

By then, older recreational players from the Valrico Soccer Club could find themselves in a new league or out of organized soccer. That discourages Inch.

"When you tell a kid, 'Go play someplace else' when you have the means to have them here, that one I don't understand," he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 22, 2007, 07:31:56]


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