BY JEFF FALK
The analytical Elco boys’ soccer program is seeking to broaden its scope. And what better place to do it than abroad?
The Raiders are traveling over seas to get better in touch with the game of soccer, and themselves. There is very little question that the trip wields the power to change their lives forever.
On Wednesday afternoon, a group of 67 eastern Lebanon County residents associated with the Elco boys’ soccer program – including the entire Raider varsity and JV teams – embarked from Philadelphia International Airport bound for Europe. The Raiders will spend 16 days in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France absorbing the subtleties of European culture, honing their international ‘football’ skills and competing against club teams in their age groups.
“It gives them a different view of soccer,” said Elco head coach Kirk Keppley. “It’s an opportunity to see another culture. Some of our kids never leave the Elco border. It’s something we want to provide for our kids. You’re getting an opportunity to do something other soccer players will never do. It’s a world experience.
“I think they’ll get a better understanding of themselves as players,” Keppley continued. “If they think they’re strong technically as a player, maybe they’re not as strong as they think they are. Our first touch has to be better. We’re not going to have time to make mistakes. And then after all the work we’ve put in we can ask ourselves, ‘Has there been improvement?'”
This is not the Raiders’ first trip overseas. In fact, the tradition of traveling abroad is becoming almost as rich as the Elco soccer program itself.
Keppley, a graduate of Elco, has been on five trips out of the country for soccer, three as a coach and two as a player. In 2007, the Raiders and Keppley traveled to England, while 14 years earlier the program made another trip to Germany.
Two years ago, the Elco girls’ soccer program went to Brazil to strengthen their skills.
“When I was 12, I jumped at the opportunity to go to England, Ireland and Scotland,” said Keppley. “A lot of the dads who are going this time had the opportunities when they were younger. So we sat down and said, ‘How can we make this opportunity available for everyone?’ We feel it’s important to give them the opportunity to do this.
“Between the kids and the parents, the trips are a blast,” Keppley added. “The kids are forced to be around each other. They’re living with each other for 16 days. It’s a bonding experience, and even the parents get a little closer. Overall, it’s a great experience.”
For 16 days of meals and hotels, and air fare, the cost of $3000 per person is a steal. The players funded half of their costs through fund-raising and then were personally responsible for the other half.
“It is a great deal,” said Keppley, who teaches social studies at Elco Middle School. “The games are against foreign players. The coaching is against foreign coaches. The sites we will see are amazing. But it’s all about the different people you meet. The communication is going to be a little difficult, but soccer is the common bond.
“With it being the number one sport in the world, you can’t top it,” continued Keppley. “The United States hasn’t been into that world scene all that long. As far as soccer goes and the passion for the game, it’s been the world’s sport for 100 years.”
In addition to gaining a better understanding of international soccer and foreign cultures, as well as picking up some technical pointers, the Raiders will learn some things about themselves and return stronger as a group. It is the kind of learning one can only do by stepping outside of his or her comfort zone.
“I think so, definitely,” said Keppley. “When we took groups in the past, they were definitely closer knit-groups when we came back. And with some of the parent groups, a lot of them become close friends. It does build bonds and relationships.
“One of the advantages is maybe seeing a higher level of soccer,” Keppley concluded. “An understanding that to compete at that level, it takes commitment. This (soccer) is all a lot of these kids do. Now they’re going to see a culture where that is all they do, and get a chance to see what their facilities are like. I think they’ll see the culture that surrounds soccer. They’ll get an overall picture of soccer in the world. And we’re the foreigners.”