Arizona Club Soccer Produces Scholarship-Backed Players, but At What Cost?

Kieran Clancy loved soccer. Like most club soccer players in Arizona, the 18-year-old had long hoped to land a college soccer scholarship.

Clancy and his family had done all the right things. Since he was 10, he'd played with one of the most expensive clubs in Arizona, the Sereno Soccer Club, at a cost of about $10,000 a year.

This past June, Sereno's top boys' team gathered for the State Cup. Clancy scheduled college scouts to travel to Arizona to watch him play, according to one of his teammates.

But Clancy never got to play in the tournament. A signature on a form showed up — allegedly Clancy's signature — stating the boy had agreed to drop out of the game, to make way for a college All-Star player. (Clancy's mother did not return repeated phone messages left for her and Kieran.)

As he and his family apparently told soccer officials, after Sereno had won the state championship and then the regional championship in Hawaii, Clancy never signed the form. At a meeting of soccer officials, they said that his coach, Les Armstrong, 45, forged his name to get him off the team.

Such are the high stakes in Arizona club soccer.

It caught the interest of the club team in Colorado that had lost to Sereno. The team hired lawyers to investigate. In July, the US Youth Soccer National Championship board revoked Arizona's victory, awarding the championship to the second-place team.

Then, the Arizona Youth Soccer Association conducted its own investigation. It concluded that Armstrong had ordered the forgery.

On August 8, the Arizona board suspended Armstrong from coaching soccer for five months. As the director of all Sereno coaches, Armstrong was making a base salary of $75,000 at the time.

Armstrong went from being the coach to beat in Arizona to being unemployed.

"Kieran had these college coaches coming out to see him [play] at the State Cup game. It was just terrible because they forged his drop signature on the form," says a Sereno teammate who played with Clancy since they were 10.

The teammate, now 19, doesn't want his name used — for fear that Les Armstrong could sabotage his chances of getting a college scholarship.

"With people like Les, who have huge pull in certain colleges, one phone call could destroy us. If he makes one call to a university that I'm looking at, there goes my soccer career," the young man says.

Armstrong says Clancy was never on the team in the first place. He maintains that he never signed anything.

Armstrong's drive to win the State Cup was typical, according to a Sereno parent who also worked as a sports psychologist for Sereno athletes. That man, Daren Treasure, resigned from the club in April, citing an abusive culture that trickled down from Armstrong.

"Based on my observations and work with the coaches and virtually all competitive teams in the Club, I believe the culture in the Club is at best unhealthy and at worst abusive," Treasure wrote in his April 17 resignation.

"Winning cannot be the ends that justifies any means, and the desire to win should never serve as a justification of dysfunctional, abusive, or demeaning comments or behaviors," Treasure wrote, adding that under Armstrong, "winning has come at too high a price for the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of the children and adolescents in the club's charge."

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 5,000 soccer players, parents, and siblings gathered for the annual Ahwatukee Foothills Soccer Tournament. A comfortable breeze passed over the groomed grass. SUVs, Lexuses, and motor homes with plates from Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado lined the parking lot.

Soccer moms with umbrellas and snacks relaxed in lawnchairs as their kids played. But the apparently calm parents at this tournament belie a deeper reality that's taking hold of Arizona club soccer.

As parents have grown increasingly concerned about college scholarships, the competition — both on and off the field — has grown fierce.

Standing under an awning, digging through a box of red T-shirts, Alec Gefrides, director of the tournament, says some Arizona club parents and coaches have lost sight of the sport altogether.

"Most states only allow eight tournaments a year. Arizona has 42, so the kids are literally playing year-round," he says. Gefrides adds that he knows a lot of great parents and coaches in club soccer. But the competition is getting out of hand.

"It's ridiculous. It's jealousy. Those parents pay all that money, and they want to be the best because they're paying all that money. As a parent, you get obsessive, I think," he says. "When I see somebody saying a 10-year-old kid shouldn't even be on the field, that's going too far. These parents are way too competitive."

That competition routinely spills off the soccer field. A few weeks after Sereno director Les Armstrong lost his job and was suspended, two parents of former Sereno players contacted New Times. Both parents requested anonymity.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson