Soccer: Youth soccer schism in Mattituck creates issues

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | A Mattituck under-12 boys team (in blue) won, 3-0, over Huntington on Saturday in Laurel.

These are indeed trying times for the embattled Mattituck Soccer Club and club soccer in this area.

Some Mattituck players are practicing and playing in Riverhead. Some Riverhead players are practicing and playing in Laurel or Mattituck. Some Mattituck players must take two ferry rides as part of a 90-minute commute to their “home” games in East Hampton.

For the first time in its history, the Mattituck Soccer Club is not fielding a girls travel team this spring. Meanwhile, a dissident group of coaches whose teams have defected from the club have issued a call for reform.

A volatile mix of philosophical differences, a dwindling player pool, personality clashes and conflicting claims have created a boiling stew of discontent, with the Mattituck Soccer Club at the center of the controversy.

Yes, these are interesting times for club soccer on the North Fork.

The Mattituck soccer factory that once seemed to produce an endless supply of talented players for Mattituck’s school teams seems to have slowed down, dramatically so on the girls side. When it was known as the North Fork Soccer Club, the organization once had as many as 17 travel teams, enjoying the bounty of players from Riverhead to Orient from 1995 to 2000. The club’s popular summer program boasted up to nearly 500 youngsters in the late 1990s, so many that a limitation had to be placed, and no players outside the Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District were admitted.

But player numbers are drying up with the influx and growth of other sports. Facing the pressure of finding enough players to field teams at the various age levels, the Mattituck Soccer Club reached a cooperative arrangement with the Riverhead Soccer Club. The two clubs now share players in order to field teams that either club might not be able to field on its own.

The announcement of tryouts last spring and plans to assign players to teams on the basis of their skill levels — a process that could split up players who have been on the same team for years — sparked a furor. Some coaches said the club leadership was, in effect, catering to elite players at the expense of the majority and breaking up teams without seeking input from the majority of parents and coaches.

“There are significant amounts of people who want to stay together with their family and friends,” said Joe Vasile-Cozzo, one of the dissident coaches, who is in charge of two girls teams, the under-15 Rapids and the under-13 Waves. “You’re forcing our kids to get involved in something which is really what they don’t want to do, which is splitting up. I’ve had kids on my teams that say, ‘If I can’t play with my friends, I’m not playing soccer,’ so we’ve lost kids out of the program.”

In opposition to this move, a group of nine Mattituck teams (including seven girls squads), comprising 140 players and 13 coaches, withdrew from the club last spring and now play under the banner of the Sag Harbor Soccer Club. Their home games are in East Hampton. Almost all those players reside in the area from Laurel to Greenport.

Just like that, the Mattituck club lost most of its travel teams and was left with five boys travel teams.

“When 140 kids and nine teams collectively have to leave, you know something is wrong,” said Henry Santacroce, an assistant coach for the Stars, an under-10 girls team that was among those that pulled out.

In case there was any confusion, a prominent posting on the home page of the Mattituck Soccer Club’s website stated, “The MSC does not have any association, nor working relationship with the Sag Harbor Soccer Club, its coaches or administrators.”

Hope remained that a rapprochement could still be reached following talks between the opposing sides, but they were since quelled when efforts by the nine teams to be allowed to play their home games at the Mattituck Soccer Club’s home fields in Laurel fell through. Some blamed the Mattituck Soccer Club for standing in the way of such an arrangement.

“This is basically a gauntlet that they put down on us,” said Vasile-Cozzo.

Members of the Mattituck club’s seven-person executive board said the question of the nine Sag Harbor teams playing in Laurel was really a Long Island Junior Soccer League issue. They said the league has a strict rule that requires teams to play in their own geographic area.

Attempts to reach Andrew Seabury, a member of the Long Island Junior Soccer League board of directors, for comment were unsuccessful before the deadline.

Dr. Amy Prager, a coach and parent, stated in a Feb. 15 letter to the Long Island Junior Soccer League that the Mattituck Soccer Club’s blocking the use of the Laurel fields by the teams that had left the club is “an outright assault against its Mattituck residents.” She wrote that the club is “not a representation of our community, and is not functioning democratically.” The club leaders, she wrote, are “putting their adult egos and team standings ahead of our children.”

What is the club’s response to the charge of critics that it is following undemocratic practices, with decisions made by the few?

“We’re a board of seven, and the board is a representation of not only coaches in the club, former coaches in the club, officers of the board,” said Bill Hayes, who has been the club’s president since 2001 and has been involved in it since its inception around 1993. “The decisions are ultimately made by the board, just as with any entity, but there is certainly a dialogue and a conversation we have with coaches meetings and conversations on the soccer field.”

Hayes added: “There are a group of coaches who left voluntarily from our club, and unfortunately for the Mattituck Soccer Club, the three or four groups of teams that left were girls teams. That’s the unfortunate dynamic. We want to keep the girls involved in our club.”

Hayes said there have been “very minimal changes in our club. When you want to make a change, you sit, you negotiate, you argue a point. We talk. You don’t say, ‘I don’t like the way you’re doing it,’ [and] you pack up, take your ball and leave. That’s not how things are done.”

On the club’s website, it states as part of its philosophy, “MSC believes youth soccer players [should] be given the opportunity to play at the highest level they can reach as an individual player, whether this be High School, State/Regional, College or even the chance to be a professional athlete.”

The club offers a developmental program for boys and girls at a beginner level, a developmental team program for players in the under-8 and under-9 age groups and a travel team program for players ages 10 to 19.

The Mattituck Soccer Club faces competition not only from other soccer organizations but also from other sports. Baseball, softball, basketball, field hockey and the newest game in town, lacrosse, have the potential to siphon players away from Mattituck’s travel soccer program.

“Over the years, the player pool has diluted,” said Scott Carter, a member of the club’s executive board. “We as a club have just been fighting to keep players at every age group.”

Joe Pfaff, an executive board member and assistant club registrar, said a club ideally wants teams in each age group. “As the number of kids was dropping off, we found gaps in the program,” he said.

This spring season the club has some 250 players, about half of them in the developmental program, according to Pfaff.

Facing a similar problem, the Mattituck and Riverhead soccer clubs joined forces last spring in the hope of providing playing opportunities for players who they say otherwise might not have a team to play for.

The Riverhead Soccer Club president, Ron Jager, said the arrangement has worked out “great” for his club. Similar in size to its neighbors to the east, the Riverhead club has five travel teams and close to 200 players.

Without the cooperation of Mattituck, Jager said, “We would be able to field teams, but we would have to mix ages, mix abilities and even mix genders.”

Jager said the idea of clubs sharing players is part of a national trend. “I think what’s happening throughout the soccer world is now affecting the East End,” he said.

It is, perhaps, in reaction to that development that his club has virtually given up the “Riverhead” name for its teams. With the exception of the Riverhead Alliance under-18 boys team, all the club’s other teams go by the name East End F.C.

Another source of contention has been Mattituck’s use of paid trainers supplied by the New York Red Bulls professional team. Club officials say the trainers are a valuable resource, benefiting players and coaches. Pfaff said cost has been the primary objection to the use of the trainers. He said the club spent between $35,000 and $40,000 on training for the 2011 calendar year.

The rift in the club has been marked by some hard feelings, with nasty emails being circulated. Vasile-Cozzo, a former Mattituck High School varsity boys soccer coach who Hayes said carries a lot of influence, seems to have been a lightning rod.

“In all honesty, there is a huge philosophical difference between Joe Vas and basically all of us,” Jay Burkhardt, a Mattituck executive board member, said. “I know he’s hellbent, basically, on destroying the soccer club because he cannot control it.”

Vasile-Cozzo said it is untrue that he is looking to destroy the club. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.

Explaining his position regarding the club, he said: “I’m not looking to bury any one of those board members. My point is, let the community decide what they want. Let the parents of the kids decide what they want.”

Referring to the executive board members, Vasile-Cozzo said: “Those guys are all soccer guys. I know them. I’ve had their kids on my team, and I have nothing but respect for their knowledge in soccer, but I will not allow anyone to dictate what they should do with my kid, and the 140 kids, their parents felt the same way.”

Dr. John Borzilleri, an assistant coach for the Stars, said he isn’t interested in personalities or personal attacks. “Keep the focus on the kids,” he said. “The issue is our kids can’t play soccer on their own home field.”

Critics of the club leadership said they had considered forming a separate club, but it is not logistically feasible.

“For better or worse, they represent our community,” said Rob DiGregorio, who coaches the under-10 boys Storm and the under-11 girls Whitecaps, two former Mattituck teams. “They should represent our community because they hold the key for us to play soccer.”

And just what does the future have in store for the Mattituck club and the teams that don’t have a club to call their own?

“We’re very concerned about soccer here on the North Fork,” said Hayes, who anticipates six to eight Mattituck travel teams will be registered in the fall, possibly more if girls teams can be fielded.

“We truly wanted to make it work,” Vasile-Cozzo said. “The question now is, what are we doing in the fall?”

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