Kansas City’s Heartland Soccer Association celebrates 40 years

The country’s largest youth soccer organization wasn’t built overnight. Heartland Soccer Association – home to more than 30,000 recreational and competitive soccer players through its leagues and tournaments – traces its roots to 1977 with the formation of the Johnson County Soccer League.

The JCSL began with 600 mostly high school aged players on 43 teams, primarily as a recreational league.  A few years later, the Kansas Premier Soccer League (KPSL) formed with four U-19 girls’ teams to serve players who wanted to experience competitive soccer.

“The Premier players kept coming back,” said Donna Kaminsky, who worked as an administrator for the Heartland Soccer Association and its predecessors for 35 years. “They anchored the league. When they merged, that’s when the visibility happened.”

JCSL and KPSL merged to form the Johnson County Soccer Association, which eventually included teams from around the metro area.

“When we first heard about the merger, it sounded like a good deal,” said Pat Monaghen, president of Northeast United, one of Heartland’s founding clubs. “Instead of having two groups, both trying for fields, two different groups merged together and decided that working together works for the betterment of the soccer community.”

Organizing the nascent league was difficult. There was no central place for games and practices which mostly occurred on school fields spread over Johnson County.

“Communication was the biggest challenge,” Kaminsky said.  “There was a lot of coordination. It took a lot of manpower. Back in the day it was all carried on the backs of volunteers. Nobody got paid except the referees. It was all based on parents who wanted their kids to have the sport and were willing and able to give a ton of their time to the organization. It wouldn’t have happened without them.”

Through the strength of will of dedicated volunteers like Kaminsky and Monaghen, Chris and Beth Christofferson, Hugh and Patty McTighe – plus Bob Rodriguez, the league’s first general manager – the league grew.

“We knew how much our kids loved it and that’s why the parents got involved,” Kaminsky said. “Once you took your kid out to the fields and they could play this game and they could understand this game and they wanted to go back to the next practice, wanted to go back to the next game. And they loved it. Then you started to think ‘why haven’t we always had this game?’  I think for most of us that was our drive. Our kids loved it, so we loved it and we were going to make it the best we can.”

As participation grew, having adequate fields became a bigger problem. Through extensive efforts of the soccer association, Heritage Park opened in Olathe.

“One of the big things that the Association did was negotiate for Heritage Park and have an actual home, to have fields that weren’t school fields,” Kaminsky said. “Finally there was a place to call their own and have tournaments and things like that.”

Said Monaghen, “When they opened Heritage, it was hallelujah. We only have to go to one place to play or practice. We don’t have to travel to 450 different fields. It made it easier to tell people we’re part of Heartland, we play our games at Heritage Park. The schedule was done and everything was much more coordinated. Having Heartland do that scheduling really helped a lot.”

Having a central location for games made organizing easier and also helped the league grow, as did the attention brought by the tournaments. The Memorial Day weekend tournament got the ball rolling.

“We got teams from a lot of states,” Kaminsky said. “Once it started getting some recognition, some of the other tournaments started. They played some girls’ tournaments and that got a lot of attention. I think it was the emphasis on the tournaments that really brought the attention, really brought the awareness.”

The leagues and tournaments grew quickly because Heartland Soccer embraced the ideals of accessibility for kids while also promoting competition among players of similar skill levels.

“The number of kids participating certainly increased and still does,” Monaghen said. “One of the things we (at Heartland) look at is you want every kid to have the opportunity to play and to learn to be a part of a team.”

Said Kaminsky, “It has become a very legitimate sport because it appeals to boys and girls of any age. It’s a fairly easy sport to learn. Lots of different kids can play. You can play at whatever level kids want.”

The Heartland Soccer Association provides an opportunity for kids of any age and ability to enjoy the game. Heartland executive director Shane Hackett described his own experience as a soccer parent.

“We have nine divisions of competitive soccer which all have nine teams in it and then we’ve got multiple divisions of recreational players,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I love about Heartland is that as a parent of five kids, all of my kids have different skill levels and desire to play the game. They can play at whatever competitive level they want to. Very few cities around the country have that ability.

“I think that’s where a lot of the growth is; players can continue to play as long as they want to. We’re seeing kids stick around and play a lot longer now and hopefully help them get a good healthy lifestyle with exercise.”

“Heartland has represented the youth soccer community in every way possible,” said Carol Cleek, president of Kansas State youth Soccer Association and former president of Kansas Rush. “It’s providing the avenue for kids to play from an early age all the way through to college.  They provide that venue for everybody to play at all levels of competition from recreation to the most competitive league, for both boys and girls.  Heartland is what’s really helped drive Kansas City as the capital of soccer in America.”

In 1995, the combined leagues became Heartland Soccer Association (HSA) with founding member clubs Blue Valley Soccer Club (now Sporting Blue Valley), KC Fusion, Kansas Premier Soccer League, Kansas Rush, Northeast United and Overland Park Soccer Club.

With the HSA guidance, soccer has become the area’s single largest youth sport.

“Give a lot of credit to the individual clubs,” Hackett said. “Everybody worked together. There’s been a consensus on the board 99 percent of the time. In my 13 years, we’ve only had two votes that haven’t been unanimous.  They’ve worked not only in the best interests of their clubs, but also in the best interests of Kansas City soccer. Everybody’s doing what’s best for the whole.”

Said Cleek, “I think Shane has done a really good job of listening to the presidents of the clubs about what their needs are and what they need that structure to look like. Every club has a vision of what they want to provide. Some clubs see themselves as a recreational club. Some clubs see themselves as nothing but competitive. And some see themselves as a little bit of both. It depends upon what you’re trying to achieve and I think Shane’s trying to listen to all of the club presidents and what they’re trying to do and provide a venue for them for what they’re trying to do and have an ability to compete in it.”

As the association reaches its 40th anniversary in August, some of its earliest supporters look back with pride.

“I think it’s phenomenal what’s happened,” Kaminsky said. “I really am proud of what’s happened. It hasn’t always been smooth. There’s been rocky places. But, I’m really proud of what everybody’s done. Today Shane is doing a fabulous job of maintaining and continuing to build.”

Said Cleek, “I think people over the years have taken (Heartland) for granted. I have great appreciation for what Heartland has provided to this community.”

The Heartland Soccer Association operates the largest Midwest tournaments and is the largest youth soccer organization in the country with more than 1,300 teams competing from U9 to U19 on world class, all-turf fields at Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex, Swope Soccer Village and Wyandotte Sporting Fields, and the legacy Heritage Park grass fields.

“To say that we’re blessed as a soccer community is an understatement,” Hackett said. “There’s a lot of wonderful things about Kansas City soccer.”

For more information about Heartland Soccer Association, visit its website:  heartlandsoccer.net.

For more youth soccer coverage visit http://kcsportspaper.com/category/youth-sports/youth-soccer/

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Article by Marc Bowman

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