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Soccer Association of Columbia turns 40

The Soccer Association of Columbia (now officially the Soccer Association of Columbia - Howard County) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. With a rich history, 6,000 players, 1,000 coaches and eight fields, SAC is a local success story.
The Soccer Association of Columbia (now officially the Soccer Association of Columbia - Howard County) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. With a rich history, 6,000 players, 1,000 coaches and eight fields, SAC is a local success story. (Staff Photo by Brian Krista, Patuxent Publishing)

Maria Tanglos wasn't surprised when the father of one of the players on her boys soccer team, part of the Soccer Association of Columbia, approached her after their first practice with a skeptical look on his face and a pointed question on his mind.

With her petite stature and pigtails, she knew she doesn't look the part of a seasoned coach and certainly can't be a male role model for her 12-year-old son Ben's teammates.

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"I told him, 'Give me four practices, and then you can say anything you want to me,' " recalled a confident Tanglos.

Sure enough, Tanglos, who began playing for SAC at age 6 and is in her eighth year as a coach, managed to win over the doubting dad, as she had others before him.

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Soccer is serious business in Howard County, and much of that is due to SAC, the nonprofit organization that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Tanglos is one of 1,000 SAC coaches working with 6,000 boys and girls.

"It was burned into our brains [as kids] that Columbia is a giving community, and we were raised to believe you give back," said the single mom, who was born the same year SAC was, in 1971. "If you have the soccer bug, then you also have the community bug, and SAC is the place to be."

Renamed the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County in 1997, but still popularly called SAC, the club is marking the milestone with an eye on where it's going as much as on where it's been.

"We've plateaued at 6,000 kids and we're comfortable with that," said Jim Carlan, a former federal accountant who's served as SAC's chief operating officer since 2000. He started out in 1973, coaching three of his five children's teams, and moved up through the ranks.

"Soccer was really in its embryonic stage back then and that suited the like-minded people in this community," the Boston native said.

SAC "grew up with Columbia" as coaches learned the unfamiliar game and its popularity spread rapidly, he said. Only Columbia villages were invited to field teams when SAC was launched by Felix Rausch, who was aided by Bill Sim, among others. Both men have long since retired as volunteers.

Rausch, a native German who now lives in Virginia, said he expected great things for SAC from the outset.

"Columbia was the perfect incubator because of its makeup and its people," he said. "It was an experiment all the way around."

Surprising success

Sim, a British native, credits Rausch and fellow Brit Doug Goodsir with the SAC concept. But he said the late Jim Yedlicka of the Columbia Association "was the catalyst for SAC's success and it couldn't have happened without him."

"When registration hit 3,000 in the first five years — just as Jim had predicted — it surprised the hell out of me," Sim said.

By 1989, Sports Illustrated was hailing Columbia as "the heartland of U.S. soccer" in a June 12 article. Some consider the late 1980s and early 1990s to have been SAC's heyday, Carlan said, as six players turned pro during that period.

With SAC membership stable for the past six years after decades of growth, the 40-year mark may prove the right time for "this sports-crazy county" to pause and reassess, Carlan said.

Football and lacrosse are surging in popularity and also need fields, so building up SAC's rosters even further is not an option. "We're all competing for scarce resources as it is," he said.

SAC currently fields 274 rec teams, 67 clinic teams, 56 travel teams and 27 high school-age teams, with 1,000 volunteer coaches and 500 team managers. Programs are served by a paid staff of seven that includes Carlan, he said.

"We're probably the best-kept secret in the business community with our $1 million annual budget," he said.

But with membership set at $200, up from $20 in the earliest years, it's easy to do the math and conclude SAC is financially healthy. One sign of the club's financial well-being is the month-old $600,000 turf field at Covenant Park, off Centennial Lane, he said.

Today, there are eight fields, evenly split between grass and turf. A ninth field is planned to open in two years, he said.

"We've spoiled the kids who've been coming in these last six or seven years," he said. "They weren't around to remember the Board of Education's grass fields with all their lumps."

Dave Procida, a commercial contractor who coached for 13 years and held various offices, helped SAC acquire the land for its complex at Northrop Fields at Covenant Park, which opened in 2004.

After many years of searching and building up its field acquisition fund, the organization purchased Covenant Baptist Church's 120 acres off Centennial Lane with the understanding it would lease eight acres back to the church. About 60 acres were deemed suitable for building and the other 50-plus were sold to a private buyer, he said.

"The church could have sold the land to a private developer for four times that amount, no doubt about it," Procida said, calling the joint venture "absolutely out of the box" back then. "It was a great community effort."

Creig Northrop's real estate firm signed a seven-year sponsorship deal with SAC, which wasn't renewed and is expiring Sept. 30, Carlan said. A new deal was crafted with Bob Lucido's real estate company, and the site will be renamed Lucido Fields at Covenant Park on Oct. 1.

Under Armour also began sponsoring SAC three years ago, said Shawn Flynn, director of partnerships marketing for the Baltimore-based sports apparel company.

"The SAC teams are competitive on regional and national levels," he explained. "And they have great facilities, second to none."

Developmental club on tap?

One new venture being discussed for SAC is starting a developmental club to provide a local venue for top players, Carlan said. Players now migrate to four clubs in the area: the Baltimore Soccer Club, the Bowie-based Free State Soccer Alliance, the Rockville-based Potomac Soccer Association, and the United Soccer Club, also called DC United, based in Washington.

"A developmental club offers advanced level of play, and parents feel it provides one more vehicle to help kids earn scholarships or make the cut for professional teams," he said.

Bill McCormack, who is SAC's longest-serving volunteer coach with 38 years, said a club seems like "the next logical step." He described such an academy as being to athletes what the Peabody Conservatory is to musicians.

"I have a gut feeling that it will probably happen in time," said the retired engineer. "We're still a soccer hotbed and expectations are even higher now." SAC has responded to increased expectations by improving its training of coaches, many of whom played college soccer, he noted.

Sim said a development club "might happen here," partly because soccer remains so popular and because there could be good access off Interstate 95.

"SAC needs to stay fresh, but the idea 'if you stay the same, you go downhill' is not necessarily true," he said.

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Tanglos said she's more than ready for "part two" of SAC's story. "I would absolutely love to have a full training atmosphere here, and a semi-pro league would be absolutely phenomenal.

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"In five years, you're going to see something," she projected. "We need to ensure that SAC keeps getting better. It's definitely a 'stay tuned' situation."

Even if change at SAC is something people are clamoring for, McCormack says one constant keeps him coming back.

"There's one thing that hasn't changed in 40 years," he said. "These people are good people and everybody's still enthusiastic about teaching kids to play soccer. That's the heart and soul of the organization."

Carlan agreed wholeheartedly.

"The proudest thing we can say is we took a sport no one knew anything about and taught it to a couple of generations," he said.

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