Following a physical match on a cold, windy Friday night, opposing players from Keller and Southlake Carroll smiled and traded hugs in the middle of the field.
For the 90 minutes prior, they were bitter rivals and bruising foes. For some, they’ll be club teammates on Saturday morning.
“Kids may be playing each other on a Friday and then training together the next day,” Keller coach Billy Griffiths said.
It’s a kind of strange, but accepted reality of girls soccer, which thrives in a cluster along the Tarrant and Denton County border. A 20-mile stretch from Keller to Coppell houses some of the most consistent and talented high school soccer teams in the state, and even the entire country, fueled in part by an abundance of elite club-level players that live in the area.
The UIL Class 6A Region I tournament at Justin’s Northwest ISD Stadium begins Friday with Mansfield (23-2) versus Flower Mound Marcus (21-3-1) at 3 p.m., and Keller (13-6-3) versus Allen (21-1-1) at 5:30 p.m. The final is noon Saturday.
“When you look out there on the field and you see that amount of talent between two teams — that many upper level players at one time — it’s actually pretty awesome,” Griffiths said. “At times I’ve caught myself watching the game versus coaching the game.”
Since 2013, this Tarrant-Denton contingent has sent 14 of a possible 24 teams to the 6A regional.
There’s a good chance that, every April, you’ll find one or more of Southlake Carroll, Keller, Trophy Club Nelson, Grapevine, Flower Mound, Flower Mound Marcus and Coppell marching toward a spot in the UIL state tournament.
In the past six years, Flower Mound (2016) and Coppell (2015) have won 6A state titles. Keller (2017), Grapevine (2015, 2016), Nelson (2014) and Carroll (2013) have all reached the state tournament.
On the move
Coaches at these programs generally attribute the success to a few related factors: a population migration and the extension of powerful soccer clubs into these suburbs.
Misail Tsapos, currently at Flower Mound, has coached in the Fort Worth area for three decades and says soccer here is as good as he’s ever seen it.
He spent time in Mansfield in the 1990s, when Arlington was the epicenter of growth. But as people started migrating north to where the space was, communities like Trophy Club and Keller sprang up relatively overnight.
“With the movement, a lot of good players moved up this way with it,” he pointed out.
The movement to northern Tarrant and southern Denton counties has been driven in large part by families with socio-economic means, and that has proven corollary to girls soccer success.
“The socio-economic status across the board is pretty consistent,” Coppell coach Ryan Dunlevy said. “Areas that tend to do well financially typically have a little more talent on the girls side. That’s not necessarily the case on the boys side. I think you could probably do a study and see a pretty close connection to those two factors.”
Invasion of the clubs
With a growing population, financial means and the demand for them, quality club soccer programs began planting stakes along the Tarrant-Denton border.
“Ten years ago the kids would have to drive to north Dallas to train at a high level,” Griffiths said. “Now, that’s not the case.”
Clubs like Texans, Solar and FC Dallas spread tentacles to the area, and more athletes could specialize and train closer to home, not to mention start younger as the clubs offered higher level coaching than traditional local recreational programs.
For the players in this area, club plus high school equals year-round competition that makes them better, and with their high school teams playing in events like the local National Elite Prep Showcase — one of the premier high school tournaments in the U.S. — wanted exposure to coaches and recruiters. It also makes them quite familiar with one another.
“Just the amount of talent that comes through, is unbelievable, even with the [development academy] going on, there’s still a bunch of talent at every team,” Southlake Carroll senior defender Georgie Phelps said. “And you know them from club, so you’re really competitive and just want to win.”
Club and high school soccer can be a beneficial but quirky relationship. Development academies aside, they generally tend to accept one another and get along.
The clubs are good for the high school coaches in this area because they get quality talent that doesn’t require a lot of fundamental teaching.
“The players do have the technical ability,” Tsapos explained. “You can concentrate more on tactical situations where you break down the game. How can we get by defenders, how can we beat them down the line? It’s more functional.”
Knowledgeable and fit athletes are definitely the norm.
“They all have trained at such a level that there’s just not a lot I’m going to teach,” Griffiths added. “It’s more about management of players and personalities. Trying to get them to get along and buy in.”
And it’s that buy-in that can be a source of friction. Highly skilled club players — and as often their parents — can have differing opinions about what’s best for the high school teams.
“Every team or program has its own struggles, it just depends on what those struggles are,” Dunlevy said. “The struggles may be different for a team with a lot of higher level club kids than a program with just one or two that play club.”
Of course, success on the field usually mitigates that.
“Once you get a reputation of doing some good things, then you can sell what you believe,” Tsapos added. “If you’re a young coach coming in, you have to prove yourself. If you don’t prove yourself, they’ll eat you alive, unfortunately.”
Tsapos noted that his first year at Flower Mound in 2016 included a number of difficult coaching decisions that weren’t popular at the time he made them. But the Lady Jaguars, as a fourth seed from district play, went on to win the state championship.
“Now they’ll run through a wall for me,” he joked.