Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

Image courtesy of Worthington Community FC.

Like with many leagues that come to Minnesota, the question of becoming metro-centric arose when the UPSL arrived in the land of 10,000 lakes. Year by year, that balance has shifted back and forth.

When the UPSL held its first season for the new-look conference here, there were just six teams and 50% of them (FC Minneapolis, Vlora, Turbo) were based in the Twin Cities metro. It was a vast improvement from 2018, which saw two clubs, Granite City and FC Minneapolis, take part in a conference dominated by several clubs from eastern Wisconsin.

By 2022, the UPSL Midwest-West had begun to take shape as a genuine part of the mission to represent the vast range of soccer communities in Minnesota and its neighbors. The Twin Cities did have a whopping seven clubs, but competitive clubs were also representing Rochester, Austin, St. Cloud, and Sioux Falls, SD.

There are few clubs as indicative of this change, particularly in 2023, as Worthington Community FC. Combined with the introduction of Superior City, WCFC has the UPSL painting a fuller picture of the spectrum of Minnesota than ever before.

To learn more about Worthington Community FC, its roots, approach, and mission, Sota Soccer talked with club founders Patrick James Mahoney, Eswin Hernández, and Jason Johnson. 

Mahoney explained how the Worthington area’s passion for the game inspired the club’s formation recently in 2022.

“Last year was our first year in existence,” Mahoney explained. “We’re all soccer fans and we live in a soccer crazy community, but there’s a missing piece. Especially for a rural community, we had a successful high school program that has put a team into state for quite a few years in a row.”

Worthington, MN is the county seat of Nobles County. The county, in the southwest corner of Minnesota, is on the border with Iowa. South Dakota isn’t far away either, and the border with either state is considerably closer to Worthington than the Twin Cities metro. Worthington High School’s boys soccer team were Section 2AA champions in 2022 and were knocked out of the state tournament in the quarterfinals by Richfield.

The 2021 census marked Worthington at a population of 13,726. That leaves Worthington at about half of the size of Austin, MN, home of Austin Villa. When Austin Villa joined the league, they stood out as one of the smaller communities to do so in Minnesota’s history.

Hernández added that Worthington’s adult league has been a major part of the area’s love for soccer and further encouraged the club’s formation.

“The adult league in Worthington has been really big for the last 30 years,” Hernández said. “We always have 20 plus teams every year. We have teams that come from different towns to play in our league because it’s been a very competitive league for the last several years.”

Johnson added that while Worthington, both in reputation and reality, is rural, the area is also very diverse and has large immigrant communities that have helped grow soccer, which can now be found across the area.

“Although we’re a rural community, we’re also an immigrant community and so we don’t necessarily reflect the typical midwestern rural community,” Johnson explained. “When you think of a town of 15,000 in southwest Minnesota, it’s not necessarily what people think of, but if you were to drive around Worthington, if there’s an open patch of grass somewhere, someone will be playing soccer on that patch of grass. We just had a new indoor facility built and we have pickup being played there constantly. There’s a desire for it that I really don’t think can even be satisfied yet and that’s kind of what we want to do.”

As for why choose the UPSL, Mohaney explained that Worthington Community FC went about a searching process similar to other clubs when it decided to make the jump up.

“We started to look at different options, kind of like [Superior City] did, we looked at things like the NPSL. But, we really kind of settled in on talking to the people at the UPSL,” Mahoney continued. “The system is set up to develop but also compete at a high level and it was a really good fit for us. Instead of jumping in and making a UPSL team right away, we kind of wanted to take our time and start small but do things right… So last year we started with the U17 and U19 teams, just sort of took that show on the road and competed in different tournaments around the tri-state area and were able to have some success.”

Mahoney continued by noting that the club’s roster will focus on local athletes. He compared this to the common NPSL model of recruiting.

“When you look at the makeup of a NPSL roster, a lot of these teams that are competitive are bringing in college athletes from all over the place, which is awesome, it’s fun to showcase some of that talent. But, what we want to do is really shine a light on some of the guys we have here… We are called Worthington Community Football Club and last year, with our youth teams, that by and large is what it was. We had two kids on both teams that weren’t from Worthington.”

Worthington Community FC has held tryouts as of the publishing of this article, an important part of their recruitment process. Hernández noted that this process, along with making use of the adult league in Worthington, have been key to the roster build.

“The way we started picking our players, we know we have a lot of talent over here in the adult league, so what we did is pick the best players in our adult league and we invited them to come be part of the club,” Hernández said. “We picked the 14 best players, and then, you know, we opened tryouts to pick another 10 players… And you know, a lot of our local players, they come from Mexico, Central America. A lot of them played semi-professionally over there in our countries. They are good talents.”

Players compete during the Worthington Community FC tryouts in early February. Photo courtesy of Photography by Jason.

According to an article in the Worthington Daily Globe, 71 players from the tri-state area tried out for the UPSL team, while 64 tried out for the U19 squad.

Johnson added that the club is also making use of its namesake and using the community to grow the club and its roster, hearing out what advice players might have about talent.

“There are several players here who have a pretty broad network of friends who play in other areas, Rochester for example, Sioux Falls too. They also have a pretty good knowledge of the better players in the area. That really helped a lot, attracting people from outside of town.”

Mahoney also noted the club has connected with players from the area who have left to play college soccer elsewhere.

“We do have a couple college kids that graduated from the high school. It’s one more thing we can offer them, to come home in the summer and play ball at a high level so when they go back in the fall they feel they’ve improved, not regressed.”

As for results, Mahoney and his fellow founders acknowledge the challenge ahead, but are hopeful to create something unique in Worthington.

“You can go watch games, but until you’re playing with your guys you don’t really know,” Mahoney explained. “But, I’ll be honest, we want to make the playoffs. We want to compete and we want to be one of the top four teams. I know that won’t be easy but if you’re not going for it, then why are you doing it… We want to be competitive, we want to make a fortress here in Worthington.”

Mahoney added that off the pitch, the club hopes to become a constructive and positive part of the community, even looking to make their players long term parts of the soccer scene.

“One of the things we talked about as a long term goal [is community]. One of the reasons we put community in our name is we want this club to turn into a bedrock for this community,” Mahoney continued. “One of the things we’ve seen as a hurtle in our community is we’re having a hard time to find volunteers to fill certain roles. We want our guys to get back, we want them to be involved as coaches in the community for youth programs in the community. We want them to be certified and become referees so that we can continue to play games in the summer and our high school kids get good experience on the ball with certified refs.”

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