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Dec 26, 2006

Tourney continues to showcase high school talent

It might not be on most traditional holiday wish lists, but a college soccer scholarship is something many of the players heading to Disney's Soccer Showcase have their hearts set on.

The tournament, which runs from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, was created to bring together high school players hoping to secure scholarships and college coaches with scholarships available.

"There are so many smaller events around the country that cater to this kind of thing, but nobody captured the main ingredient so to speak which was a world-class facility," program director Patrick Dicks said.

That was something Disney -- with its Wide World of Sports facility -- was in a position to offer, laying a foundation for what would become the soccer showcase. (Full disclosure: ESPN is owned by Disney.)

By annual event standards, the Disney Soccer Showcase is still in its infancy, just entering its sixth year. That hasn't stopped it from becoming the premiere event of its kind when it comes to college soccer recruiting. The event's rise to such status doesn't come as a surprise. After all, the showcase fills what was a void in U.S. youth soccer. Still, its rapid ascension to the top of the youth soccer scene happened quickly.

The original showcase lasted five days and featured 71 teams and about 50 college coaches. The tournament has since been broken into three separate events -- the main showcase, a junior showcase held over Thanksgiving and a Labor Day weekend qualifier for club teams looking to get into the post-Christmas event.

Over 400 teams are taking part in this year's showcase, a growth of over 480 percent since its inception, and nearly 800 college coaches are expected to be on hand.

"It's fantastic," said Dicks, one of the event's creators. "It's something that the people that were involved in from the beginning, including myself, [tournament director] Mark [Luster] and a gentleman called Tom Payne, envisioned and, quite honestly, it wasn't something that came too quickly. We thought it was going to be a big event, very successful right away, and it has been."

The key was getting the top teams in the nation and the top college coaches to attend.

"We knew if we had good teams the college coaches would come, and we knew if we had college coaches the good teams would come," Luster said. "That's what really drove the first year. From then on, the growth is a result of that first year. It was such a big success the first year. Since then, it's just continued to grow and grow. The demand by teams to come here has been great. The demand by college coaches to be here has also continued to increase year after year."

Six years after organizers labored to get 71 teams in attendance, more than 10 times that many teams are now applying to play in the showcase each year. Dicks estimated that in addition to the 400 teams taking part in the event, up to another 400 are turned away. The teams must meet certain criteria to be able to participate and must re-qualify each year.

"We have a demand right now where we could literally double the size of the event," Dicks said. "But we wanted to keep it prestigious. We wanted to keep it where the best teams get to compete against each other so that the competition level is there, and we've kind of capped it in that respect."

Organizers have made other adjustments to make the event as convenient as possible for college coaches. This marks the second year the boys and girls' events have been separated, with the boys playing Dec. 27-30 and the girls taking the field Dec. 30-Jan. 2. The junior showcase, featuring players age 14 and younger, was created as a separate event because the consensus was that college coaches were primarily interested in scouting high school players, especially those age 16 and up.

Now, it has become an issue of maintaining, as well as improving, the showcase.

"We've got to keep going," Dicks said. "We have to continue to push the barriers, to continue to be the No. 1 youth tournament in the country. Mark, myself and [sales manager] Channing [Swears] spend a lot of time figuring out how that works."

Corporate sponsor adidas brings in three of the top professional U-17 teams in the world. This year, the sportswear giant is flying in teams from Newcastle United, Real Madrid and Tigres (Mexico). The United States U-17 team and regional U-17 teams also take part in an elite bracket along with the three overseas clubs.

Many high-profile youth players, such as Fro Adu and NSCAA 2006 High School Player of the Year Corben Bone, are among the participants, as the Disney Soccer Showcase brings together the best U.S. youth soccer has to offer.

With coaching representatives from programs like Indiana and Duke to reigning national champions UC Santa Barbara and North Carolina, all the elements are in place for aspiring collegiate players to prove they have what it takes to play against the nation's best. The showcase presents an ideal stage for these players do just that.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.