With Winter Olympics fever running high on the Vineyard, it’s hard to imagine that soccer is on anybody’s mind. And yet for a handful of young Island soccer players currently playing in the Olympic Development Program, the focus is definitely on the pitch rather than the snow-covered hills of Sochi. The Olympic Development Program (ODP) is run by United States Youth Soccer and was established in 1977 as a means of identifying athletes who could someday play for the national squads, which compete in the World Cup and the Olympics. Each state has its own ODP program, which is broken into five age groups each for girls and boys. Tryouts are open to any players who are interested, but competition levels are, understandably, high. Four Vineyarders are part of the development program. Last fall Olivia Pouliot, 12, became the newest and youngest member of the program. Olivia has been playing soccer on the Island since she was five, and often “played up” in the youth soccer league because the overall pool of girl players is small (at age nine, she played on an Under-14 team).
Olivia and her father, Brad, traveled to the large indoor training fields in Lancaster in November, but they were realistic about Olivia’s chances of earning a spot in the program.
“We thought the tryout itself would be a good experience,” Mr. Pouliot said.
“I got so nervous because of the size [of the complex],” Olivia said. She went through drills and a scrimmage with girls in her age group. And at the end of the day, she learned she was in.
For most players, the benefits of being in ODP are less a shot at future Olympic glory, and more a chance to test themselves against a new level of competition. Alex Gordon-Beck, 16, a junior fullback on the regional high school soccer team, had never heard of ODP before last summer when Massachusetts Youth Soccer hosted a camp on the Vineyard. After attending the camp, he decided to try out for the program and earned a spot, a surprising feat considering that some of the players on the U-17 roster had been playing in ODP for years.
Alex said he wants to play soccer in college, but because the high school season overlaps with the college schedule, it’s hard to be scouted by college programs, a problem exacerbated by the Vineyard travel factor. Making the ODP team and committing to the program is an additional notch on a soccer rÃ©sumÃ©.
“You’ve already been identified as a quality player, that’s why you made the team,” said Rocco Bellebuono of West Tisbury, an assistant coach in the Massachusetts girls’ ODP program.
Alex is also a member of the varsity basketball team, and had to get special permission through the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletics Association to miss basketball practices for his occasional off-Island ODP trips.
But it was worth it, he said. The focus on skills and on-field communication has already made had an impact. Because nobody is bound to a particular team’s style of play, athletes are free to experiment and, ultimately, evolve.
“What they’re doing is creating players,” Mr. Bellebuono said. His son Gabriel, 13, is also an ODP player. Last summer, Gabriel took his ODP skills to the next level by making the regional team, which consists of 350 of the best players in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. The regional ODP team travels to tournaments across the country. Gabriel also plays in an off-Island soccer league and the Bellebuonos find themselves traveling off-Island four times a week for soccer.
“They’re giving kids the education and the game they need to play at a very high level,” Mr. Bellebuono said.
“A lot that we worked on last year was just going out and playing,” Gabriel said. “This year the game’s a lot more physical and they’re trying to make it more technical.”
“The quality of coaching is amazing, and also the quality of the players,” said Nicolas Andre, 14. “It’s really fun to be playing with people at the same skill level as you. It brings out the best.” Nicolas started in the ODP program when he was a U-11 player. Like Gabriel, he plays in an off-Island league in addition to participating in ODP.
“It was exciting,” Nicolas said. “When I started going, it was the best soccer I’ve played in my entire life, pretty much.”