Soccer is a simple sport. In its most primitive form, all that’s needed to play is a ball and two rocks to mark a goal. Not traditionally an American sport, soccer has gained many supporters and players in this country during the past couple of decades – in Spokane County it’s estimated that about 10,000 kids play recreational and competitive soccer.
And that could be one reason why things have gotten complicated lately.
The raging soccer debacle began early last year, when Spokane Youth Sports Association filed a grievance against Spokane Valley Junior Soccer Association for alleged violations of boundaries and player recruitment rules, and it has now escalated into a full-fledged turf war, involving the parent organization Washington State Youth Soccer Association.
In November, SYSA sued the state association and four SYSA volunteers with close ties to the state group, alleging they conspired to conduct a hostile takeover of SYSA’s soccer program. SYSA had lost its accreditation with the state group, regardless that $70,000 in spring soccer players’ fees had been deposited with the state organization.
Phil Helean, executive director of SYSA, said the lawsuit was filed as a last resort to force the state association to give SYSA its charter back because of the alleged wrongdoings of the people named in the suit. Helean adds that SYSA also wants its money back because it has no voting rights as long as it’s in bad standing.
“The last thing we wanted to do was file a lawsuit,” said Helean. “That’s really not what we are all about. We are about helping kids play sports, but we felt backed into a corner and we worried about protecting our assets.”
SYSA operates the north and south soccer complexes as well as Andrew Rypien field in Hillyard.
The first court date is set for November.
“We will continue to operate soccer in Spokane no matter what happens,” said Helean. “If your kid is registered for the spring season with SYSA, your kid will be playing soccer.”
The state association says it only acknowledges soccer organizations with elected boards, run by soccer players and coaches. Because SYSA organizes many different sports, in order to become accredited by the state association it had to form a soccer committee which could then join the state group.
In a letter signed by Washington State Youth Soccer Association CEO and executive director Terry Fisher on Jan. 21, the state organization accuses Helean of falsely communicating the intentions of his group.
“We are striving to improve the soccer experience in Spokane. Your child’s spring season will continue,” Fisher writes. “Washington Youth Soccer does not attack its member associations, it depends on them.”
In the same letter Fisher writes that SYSA has “refused to organize and propose a membership association that would meet the membership requirements of WYS.”
Helean said SYSA has no intentions of handing over the reins to the state association. . He explained that the disagreement between SYSA and the state began when SYSA’s soccer committee – SYSA-S – changed its by-laws without notifying SYSA’s board.
“We got a call from the state saying we were no longer in compliance,” said Helean.
To correct things, and get back into compliance, SYSA dissolved the soccer committee at its September board meeting then formed a limited liability corporation to replace SYSA-S.
“We were told that would bring us into compliance with the state,” Helean said.
The state organization insists that dissolving the soccer committee meant that SYSA disbanded on its own, and that the state organization is simply trying to assure that there’s a Spokane-based organization through which soccer players can continue their participation with state and national soccer organizations.
At the same time as SYSA-S was being dissolved, the state association was looking into the original grievance filed by SYSA against the Spokane Valley Junior Soccer Association, and in a letter sent on Sept. 24 it denied the grievance and ordered the two associations to pursue a merger.
That’s what led to the lawsuit filed on Nov. 12, in which SYSA alleges that the Washington State Youth Soccer Association and Bill Dittman, Jeff Hulse, Steve Scranton and Michael Terris – who have served either on the board of SYSA or on SYSA’s soccer committee – systematically tried to interfere with SYSA’s business and financial affairs to the detriment of the organization. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges, the goal was to establish a competing soccer organization that would take complete control over all soccer activities in Spokane.
The state association especially comes to the defense of Scranton and Terris whom, Fisher writes, are well-respected members of the local community as well as dedicated parents and volunteers.
“Their only ‘wrong’ is that after years of supporting youth soccer as directors and officers of SYSA-S, they continued their volunteerism and support for youth soccer by agreeing to serve as commissioners and officials of Washington Youth Soccer, representing Eastern Washington,” Fisher writes. “They deserve an apology from Helean and SYSA.”
SYSA went to State Sen. Chris Marr’s office and had a letter compiled in support of SYSA and its lawsuit on Jan. 19.
On Jan. 20, Chris Sande, president of Spokane Valley Junior Soccer Association, sent out an e-mail pointing out that his organization currently is the only state-affiliated soccer association in Spokane County and explaining that Spokane Valley Junior Soccer has been asked by the state association to seize that opportunity to restructure youth soccer in Spokane. Sande said Washington State Youth Soccer Association had already asked the two Spokane associations to pursue a merger by March 1.
“This makes some sense,” said Sande. “It’s in the state’s plan to take down the number of associations by about one third.” There are 42 member associations in Washington state.
“We really want to get along, we want for this to be about the kids playing soccer,” said Sande, who objects to the use of the term merger. “We are looking at restructuring soccer in Spokane.”
Sande said this is not about money or hostile takeovers.
“What’s driving me? The thought of what this could be – how great this could be,” said Sande, explaining that if everyone could agree it may be possible to establish an Eastern Washington and North Idaho competitive league, which would cut down on the long trips across the Cascades to compete in Seattle.
SYSA has provided recreational sports for children in Spokane since 1965 and it has more than 5,000 soccer players signed up in its programs, including the Spokane Shadow which operates 16 boys and girls U-12 to U-18 premier teams at the state and region level. It also provides youth programs for baseball, basketball, flag and tackle football, softball, track and field and speed and agility. Overall, SYSA involves 8,000 participants and 800 coaching volunteers a year.
Spokane Valley Junior Soccer Association has around 2,500 soccer players signed up.
The two organizations both have the same goal of helping kids of all abilities to learn and play soccer, and to help players and coaches develop their soccer skills. They also have a history of not getting along, by specifically and against the rules, trying to pilfer players from each other’s teams.
“Some would say there are too many clubs in this area,” said Sande, “and not enough players for all of them.”
When the original grievance was filed, the Federal Way-based state association sent its executive director Terry Fisher to Spokane to investigate and negotiate.
Sande said meetings with representatives for both Spokane soccer associations and Fisher went OK, but he perceived the state as being heavy handed.
“They are trying to establish this new system they call seamless soccer, which is more of a European-style system with the smaller clubs feeding into a super club,” said Helean, adding that the state group has expressed a desire to cut down on the number of individual associations in the state.
It was the state association’s order for the two associations to merge that really raised hackles at SYSA.
“That was a serious threat,” said Jim Wilson, SYSA board member and general manager of the Shadow. “They were going to come out here and try and undermine SYSA’s soccer program. It was heavy handed. It was arrogant.”
Adding to the sore feelings at SYSA headquarters was Dittman’s appointment by the state association as the main merger negotiator. Helean said Dittman is the former president of SYSA-S.
“And he went straight out to negotiate with the Spokane Valley folks,” Helean said.
Dittman and everyone else named as defendants in SYSA’s lawsuit declined to comment for this story because of the pending litigation. The state association has encouraged the two Spokane associations to work out their differences and settle their disputes, but refuses to speculate on what to do if SYSA will not seek mediation.
Helean said meetings with Spokane Valley Junior Soccer have gone well so far, and Sande said he wants to seek a compromise.
“Why should the players out here care about all this? Well, they should be allowed the opportunity to play and learn and not just put money on the other side of the state without a return for it,” said Sande.
Fisher points out that the state group is not a West Side organization – it’s a statewide organization that supports soccer in many communities.
Which leads to yet another brewing controversy: Both SYSA and Spokane Valley Junior Soccer are considering dropping WYS all together and joining US Club Soccer instead.
“They are a lot less expensive and a lot more supportive,” said Helean. “They want the local people, who already have relationships with schools and parks and the city, to run the soccer programs.” He has already talked to several Wes Side associations that are considering doing the same thing.
Sande said Spokane Valley Junior Soccer has contemplated the same thing, but would probably go with a dual affiliation instead.
“To me, that’s kind of like insurance – yes, it’s a bit more expensive but you can play anywhere,” Sande said.
State or national affiliation only matters to the players who compete on district and state levels, because it determines what tournaments they can go to and which teams they can play competitively.
“To the recreational players, all of this doesn’t matter,” said Helean. “I bet most of our recreational players don’t even know they are associated with Washington Youth Soccer.”