LATHROP — The River Islands Surf under-23 men’s soccer team is about a month away from kicking off its inaugural season in the United Premier Soccer League.
It essentially serves as the overall first team for Lathrop-based youth soccer organization Valley Surf, one of 41 club affiliates of Surf Nation. The goal of the Surf U23 squad is to help prepare its players who aspire to play collegiately and/or in the professional ranks.
The UPSL is a professional development league unofficially recognized as a Division IV association within the U.S. soccer league system. Teams out of the UPSL can qualify for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the country’s longest running soccer tournament that includes teams from the top professional and amateur leagues.
“Our role as River Islands Surf is to be a conduit,” U23 Director Michael Perkins said. “The idea is to progress people to the appropriate place and help them take it as far as they want to take it, yet at the same time give them enough support so that they may succeed in life after soccer.”
Perkins also coaches the Valley Surf’s under-19 boys, some of whom will get to play with the UPSL side. He is still in the process of building the roster, but the players already on the team have been training with his U19s the past couple of weeks at River Islands Sports Complex adjacent to the Islanders Field ballpark. This is where the Surf will host its games.
Unlike most of the teams it will face, Surf will be mostly made up of players looking to make the next step after the youth levels. Many of their opponents feature players who have already been there and done that, including 30-somethings with college and professional experience.
“It’s an opportunity to have film against grown men,” Perkins said. “It’s a good selling point for the kids who want to move on.”
It’s also an opportunity to keep anyone active in competition who is taking a gap year for college. College sports programs have been offering less scholarships the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. Senior athletes who had their final seasons cut short have been allowed to maintain a year of eligibility.
“Recruiting classes are small right now and a lot of kids are caught in between,” Perkins said. “We’re kind of a gap-year program that gives them a chance to play for a year. Hopefully by 2022 or 2023 those kids will have the (scholarship opportunities) that these kids did have out of high school.”
Perkins added that Surf may also serve as a pipeline to the professional ranks. Valley Surf has connections to clubs at higher levels, such as Oakland Roots of the United Soccer League Championship and San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, and players may get exposure to them down the line via friendlies.
“The last thing we want to do is deny a player the opportunity to get to a higher level,” Perkins said. “If we do that it’s because we’re worried of us, the club, instead of them. We always act in the interest of the player.”
The 10-game UPSL Premier Division Fall Season begins Aug. 21. Games will be streamed on Eleven Sports, and Perkins said anyone from the area is welcome to watch in-person.
The UPSL offers separate seasons in the fall and the spring along with prize money for the top clubs. It also has a promotion-relegation, with Division I serving as the lower flight. River Islands Surf will be placed in the Premier Division’s Western Conference Wild West North along with Davis Legacy, Cal Victory FC, Stockton FC, Elk Grove Blues, Vacaville Elite and Bay Area United. The Wild West South includes teams out of Merced, Dublin, Modesto and Livingston.
Valley Surf is led by Executive Director Jeff Jenkins, a River Islands resident who also helps oversee the San Jose Surf affiliate. The staff includes Benjamin Gonzalez (President/Event Director) and Vince Meyer (VP/Director of Coaching), longtime club soccer figures in the area. Technical Director Adam Reeves is also head coach of the Pacific men’s soccer team.
For more information about Valley Surf and the River Islands Surf U23 team, visit valleysurf.org.