BY NICK CLARK
Twenty-eight years later, the numbers centered on the largest youth soccer tournament on this side of the globe are still staggering.
The Schwans USA Cup will invade the National Sports Center (NSC) in Blaine beginning Friday, July 13.
By the time the tournament concludes July 21, over 14,000 players from 22 different states and 16 different countries will take one of the 48 NSC soccer fields to compete in the 28th running of the most popular youth sporting event in the nation.
In all, 958 teams are coming. That number is up from the 942 teams that competed last summer, and it includes a near 20-percent increase in non-Minnesota-based clubs.
For the average citizen, those numbers are likely hard to envision. But for the skilled staff that annually turns the NSC into a city in itself each July, that’s all part of the fun.
"The more, the better," said USA Cup media director Barclay Kruse. "We like it big."
Even at the start, the tournament was a big one. The first USA Cup was held in 1985 and it was called Sons of Norway USA Cup. That inaugural tournament consisted of 69 total teams – or 889 less than what this year’s USA Cup is brining to Blaine.
"I think it is safe to say we’ve come a long ways," said Kruse. "But even then, it was considered a really big tournament. We’ve just made it bigger."
The size of the event now requires splitting the USA Cup into two separate tournaments again this summer, with the weekend portion running July 13-15 and the weeklong event spanning July 17-21.
Most of the fun encompasses the weeklong tournament, though the most competitive soccer will once again take place over the opening weekend.
The PUMA vElite Tournament is back again this year, with eight of the nations best soccer clubs competing in eight-team boys and girls tournaments.
This year’s boys tournament consists of clubs from Nebraska, Illinois, California, New York, Arizona and Minnesota, with the girls teams coming in from California, Georgia, Ohio, Idaho, Utah and Minnesota.
The three-day Puma vElite Tournament begins on opening day, and concludes with championship games Sunday, July 15.
"It really is one of the most exciting things that happens," said Kruse. "The competition in those tournaments is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The kids that play in the vElite are world-class players, and are here on an invite-only basis. We try to make it elite, and we think we’ve succeeded in doing that again this year."
Minnesota’s lone professional soccer team – the Minnesota Stars FC – will be playing two home games inside the NSC’s main stadium during USA Cup July 12 and 18.
Other highlights include, as usual, the pin-trading escapade each USA Cup participant goes on, the introduction to the NSC’s newest building – the Sport Expo Center – and as a direct result of the Expo Center’s opening, the first ever U6, U7 and U8 tournaments.
The Puma World Store moved out of the Sports Hall and into the Expo Center, opening up the turf field inside the Sports Hall for, as Kruse put it, the "little kids, for the first time in USA Cup history.
"We wanted to try and do something with that space, so we decided to hold an indoor tournament for the U6, U7 and U8 kids that, previously, couldn’t play in USA Cup," said Kruse. "It’s field turf, so we wanted to use it for what it was intended for."
The players participating in the three youngest levels will play in just a one-day tournament, but will still have the opportunity to experience the USA Cup on every level.
That, of course, will include their participation in the Opening Ceremonies, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 17.
Modeled after the Opening Ceremonies for the Summer Olympic Games, each participating team will enter the NSC’s main stadium in a parade before being serenaded by fireworks, skydivers, and – also for the first time ever – a free concert.
The concert, which will last an hour, features top-40 recording artists Chris Rene and Outasight.
"I hadn’t heard of them, and many of the parents haven’t either, but the players will know who they are," said Kruse. "The artists are played on [Twin Cities-based radio station] KDWB. This just came together in the last couple weeks, so it’s not something we’ve really advertised to the players coming in. It should be a nice surprise for them."
OTHER 2012 DEBUTS
Also new to the USA Cup in 2012 is a team camp led by 2002 World Cup participant and two-time Major League Soccer champion Tony Sanneh.
The four-day, team-concept camp takes place July 16-19, and will include training sessions, clinical observations and a feedback session.
"Tony played in the very first USA Cup, and he’s been much more involved in recent years," Kruse said. "He wants to fit into the tournament, and this really does fit into the context of the tournament in that it doesn’t take teams away from doing other stuff, it just enhances the soccer experience."
A year ago, the Mother Nature did everything in her power to take away from that experience. Delays and suspensions were the theme of the 2011 event, as daily heat was followed by afternoon thunderstorms nearly every day of the event.
Kruse said the weather was unlike any in the 28-year history of the USA Cup. He said it was the first time officials ever had to postpone games due to heat, before adding that their system for postponing games worked well.
"But that didn’t mean it couldn’t be better," Kruse said. "We’ve added a USA Cup app for smartphones that should help. We’ll post everything on that app, which should really help get the word out."
The word is out with Blaine city officials on the impact the USA Cup brings to the community each summer.
Last year alone, the USA Cup brought in an estimated $20 million, a number that is sure to go up this year with the increase in out-of-state teams competing.
"Just last week, the City Manager of Blaine said if the National Sports Center in successful, Blaine is successful," Kruse said. "A lot of the commercial development around the NSC would not have happened on the timeline it did without the NSC. It’s not just USA Cup, but that’s a big part of it. You can’t get a table at a restaurant those ten days."