Often overshadowed by historically soccer rich areas in North Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, the South Jersey region is one where elite players have often had to travel great distances to get the training and exposure needed to take their game to a higher level.
That’s starting to change in part because of the outreach of the Philadelphia Union’s youth development academy and its affiliation with a boutique club based in Medford, New Jersey that goes by the name Real Jersey FC.
Formed around the time the Union’s own youth development structure was filling out, Real Jersey FC has from its early beginnings aimed to provide a higher level of competition and training for elite players in the region.
Since its founding, the club has grown more in stature than it has in numbers to 10 teams - two girls teams, the rest boys - from the U10 to U18 age groups. Individual team rosters are also kept intentionally small so there are less than 150 players total.
“A lot of clubs have A teams, B teams but for us we want all of our teams to be quality and have an attractive style of play,” said Jon Kopytko, who coaches the club’s 2004 boys team. “It’s definitely quality over quantity.”
Kopytko’s boys will be competing in not one but two national championships with the U.S. Club Soccer National Cup finals that started today near Indianapolis and the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, which starts Monday in Frisco, Texas.
“We get to play teams we’ve never played before and we’ll see really good competition, which is good for us,” said Tyler Davidson, whose extra time goal to beat Lower Merion SC at the Region I championships earlier this month in Virginia booked a spot in the national championships beginning on Monday in Texas.
Winning a state cup and a regional final has brought a new level of attention to the club, which is also making waves on even higher levels with its connections to the Philadelphia Union. Ten of its former players were part of the Union Academy setup last season.
Several were part of a team Rusty Aaronson and Drew Wagner coached at Medford Soccer Club that they brought under the Real umbrella in 2012. Real is based out of Bob Bende Soccer Complex in Medford and is still closely aligned with Medford SC.
“It was a selfish reason really,” said Aaronson, the club president, about the decision to keep his team together and join Real’s efforts. “We didn’t want to be in cars. We didn’t want to drive an hour and a half, two hours to compete with the big boys we needed to create a premier travel team.”
Aaronson and Wagner’s two older sons, Brenden Aaronson and JD Wagner, were both on that Medford Arsenal team and were teammates on the Union U16s this past year. Their younger sons, Paxten Aaronson and Zach Wagner, were teammates on the Union U14 team.
“There is some synergy there,” said Aaronson, who coaches the 2006 girls team now. “I think early on they saw what we were doing and obviously they are vested a little bit in us doing well.”
That connection was on full display last Saturday in Bethlehem when Brenden Aaronson came off the bench to make his professional debut for Bethlehem Steel FC in a game where another Real alum, Tomas Romero, was starting in goal.
“(Real) was my first competitive club, I guess you could say,” said Romero, who at 16 became the youngest goalkeeper in USL history to get a result when the Steel tied Pittsburgh Riverhounds 1-1 in his second career USL start. “That’s when soccer started getting into a competitive stance and I started looking for a future in soccer.”
Romero and Aaronson are able to compete at the professional level along with other Academy players on amateur contracts. Both also attend high school at YSC Academy near King of Prussia, where they have training sessions built into their school day.
“Since we all live in South Jersey we’re all traveling up together and even though we’ve known each for a long time the bond is even stronger because we spend so much time together,” Romero said.
That South Jersey bond (and pride) is also prevalent with the coaching staff at Real JFC. Kopytko grew up in Berlin and was part of a successful Medford Strikers team that included former Major League Soccer midfielder Stephen King and current University of Denver head coach Jamie Franks, who played a couple seasons in USL. The staff also includes Greg Ruttler, head coach of Stockton University’s men’s team and several others with ties to the region.
“We have homegrown, South Jersey coaches,” said Kopytko, who serves as an assistant on Ruttler’s staff at Stockton, where he played for three years.
The players are also mostly from area clubs in South Jersey, but that is starting to change with players from Monmouth County finding their way to the club. The recent run for the 2004 boys team will likely mean even more players from outside Medford and Burlington County gravitating to the club.
“It gives us a lot of recognition which I didn’t realize until we went to regionals,” Kopytko said of his team’s run. “The hope is the following year we’ll have two teams go, the following year three teams.”
Real Jersey FC’s title chase began this morning with a match against Austin Texans and they have games scheduled for tomorrow and Sunday morning against teams from North Carolina and Massachusetts. The turn around time will be quick for their second national championship, which begins with a game next Tuesday morning against St. Louis Scott Gallagher in Texas. They also have games scheduled against teams from Oklahoma and Nevada.
The players, a mix of rising seventh and eighth graders, are soaking up the attention and the experience. But trying to not let it get to their heads.
“We’re all really close friends, other kids are yelling at each other in games and we pick each other up,” said midfielder Braden Short, of Medford.
Six plus games in two states over a span of a week would be a challenge for a team at any age, but that’s where the philosophy of the club and the things the coaches hammer home day after day in training will come into play.
“We just have to work as hard as we can in training, prepare ourselves mentally on the flights and the car rides,” said Ryan Kuldanek, who is from Tinton Falls. “We have to drink lots of water, hydrate, listen to coach, sleep and not do anything stupid at the hotel.”