Maine's Bull Moose

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One of the perks of writing about lower league soccer is that once you show interest and commitment to telling the grassroots’ stories, the stories will often show up without much work. This story is one of those.

The Beard

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John Morgan has the kind of beard other men wish they had. One that fills his face and flows down his neck, over the front of his shirt. It’s imposing, almost dominating. It’s manly as hell. And with a beard like that, you might expect someone who is more concerned with fixie bicycles or throwing hatchets than with changing the state of soccer in his home state of Maine. When I reached out to him it was about his soccer program with Rosevelt SC, but John’s story in soccer begins much further back.

John’s path into soccer is the standard story of a kid growing up playing a game he loved. “I played in a recreational program run by the city’s recreation department until I was old enough to play for a private, town-based club that played against other town-based programs in southern Maine. And I also played for my school-based teams in middle school and high school, and I played (read: sat the bench) for a DIII program in my area for a season.“

Morgan’s playing years were ill-timed to lead to much more than fond memories. “My playing days pre-date our state’s current premier soccer scene, when the off-season playing opportunities were more informal, less structured, and less expensive. Between my junior and senior years in high school, I had the opportunity to play with a for-profit program that put together teams of players from across the country to compete in the Gothia Cup in Sweden and the Dana Cup in Denmark.”

And so with that experience in his rearview, John decided to immerse himself in the game, looking for every opportunity to grow his understanding and develop practical skills in the game. He worked his way through sub-varsity high school coach, varsity high school coach, volunteer assistant with a DIII college program, club coach, rec. coach, president of a town-based club, director of a town-based recreational program, co-founder and chairman of a premier club, and a board member with a state association. There’s almost nothing John didn’t do for the game on his way to today.

Rosevelt SC

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John Morgan’s current project is Rosevelt SC, a U9-U19 club which just completed its fifth season this year. RSC squad of 175 players is filled by the children of four communities in southern Maine. He goal in founding the club was “to give youth players in our part of the state a more affordable option for what we Mainers call premier soccer that also complements our state’s town-and school-based programs whose seasons run from August-November and requires our players’ families to travel less than they do for other programs in southern Maine that consistently send their teams out of the state throughout their season.” The nobility of the goal shouldn’t be lost on you, the reader.

And for a guy like John, isn’t the desire to build an affordable option for “Mainers” (a new favorite word for me) a direct result of his own experience. Playing through the years of school and club soccer, working his way through every professional position in the amatuer game, it only makes sense that he wants to translate all that experience into a better experience for the next generation. “I’d like our club to become a multigenerational club that fields a first team to go along with our current youth program. And I’d like our club to have the same opportunities as any other club in the world: To compete in an open domestic system, while participating in the global soccer marketplace in order to give our players, coaches, and administrators the opportunity to fulfill our greatest potential.”

But for all his hard work and personal development, the remote nature of Maine, with its isolated pockets of population and tribal approach to talent development are a hinderance to John’s long term goals. “Soccer in Maine is a microcosm of soccer elsewhere in the United States: It’s almost entirely youth-focused, with many different public and private organizations, scholastic programs, and clubs working separately from one another with very little connectivity, collaboration, or coordination, which is limiting our continuity, consistency, and capacity.”

The Icelandic Connection

Morgan loves to compare Maine to a late-blooming soccer country, Iceland. And while that comparison might seem a stretch, he’ll prove you wrong. “We Mainers generally view our relatively small population, modest wealth, and cold climate as prohibitive conditions for success in a lot of different areas, including soccer.

“Meanwhile, Iceland is a country with fewer people, less wealth (at least if you’re looking at Gross Domestic Product vs. Gross State product), and a climate that’s as harsh as Maine’s. Yet they’ve cultivated a robust domestic soccer culture that’s developed clubs that are active in the global soccer marketplace, world-class players and coaches, and a national team that’s competing in the most competitive tournaments on the globe.

“My curiosity about what their soccer system, coupled with the growing economic and cultural relationship between Maine and Iceland, has made me a bit of an Iceland-phile. And Dana Eidness, the director of the Maine North Atlantic Development Office (MENADO), coordinated my visits with Iceland’s national association and three of their clubs, and my hosts couldn’t have been more generous with their time or their insights.”

Taking the lessons drawn from Iceland’s rise in the FIFA rankings, Morgan has ever intention of crafting something special in his home state, “a coherent, connected system of clubs, scholastic programs, and organizations that gives all of Maine’s players, coaches, and clubs the best opportunities to realize their greatest soccer potential on and off the field.” But the scope of his vision isn’t limited to Maine, Morgan’s steely gaze is directed at U.S. Soccer and its “unwillingness to implement an open soccer system that gives all of our country’s clubs, coaches, and players the opportunity and access to compete at the highest levels of competition...our closed system limits the resources our clubs, players, and coaches can access, and the USSF’s restrictions on the extent to which independent (read: non-MLS) clubs can participate in the global soccer marketplace depresses our potential and ultimately makes our efforts, time, and sweat equity irrational.”

His love of the country and his ability to strengthen the logic of his Icelandic comparison resulted in a blog post so full of facts and figures, I would be remiss to not include it. It’s a primer for taking lessons from an international soccer program achieving greatness on the world stage. Finish the rest of this article, then dip back to John’s article.

The Roosevelt Model

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There’s a story about Theodore Roosevelt that should inspire anyone determined to do something great. The former president, seeking another term, was on his way to a campaign stop in 1912. As he waved to the crowd gathered around his car, an assassin shot the president in the chest. Roosevelt fell back into the car, but, within minutes, bounced back from the shooting, and headed on to his scheduled event for the evening. As he began his speech, he shocked the crowd. “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot…The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” The bullet sat between his ribs and would remain there for the rest of his life. The bullet had lost most of its power because it passed through his notes and the case for his glasses. He jokingly said after the speech, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”

Rosevelt SC drew its name from the bull moose himself, though its spelled differently. While working to found the youth club in 2014, Morgan happened to be reading a book about Roosevelt and his connection to the state of Maine. But over time, the connection has taken on even more meaning. “As president Roosevelt was known as a trust-buster who targeted monopolies that stifled competition, harmed the public good, and limited opportunities for the average American. So I guess it’s only fitting that our club is trying to do our small part to open up our country’s closed soccer system to give opportunity and access to all clubs, coaches, and players across the United States.”

It will take an army of men and women like John Morgan to change the system and there is an army of lawyers and piles of money stacked against progress towards an open system. This story could be told over and over again across this country, brave people sacrificing time, sweat, and money hoping to create lasting change in the sport they love. And for too many years, nothing has changed, regardless of all the sacrifice. But just like Teddy marching to the podium in a blood-stained shirt, with a bullet lodged in his chest, it will take more than that to kill a bull moose.

- Dan Vaughn