Big changes are sweeping the Billings soccer community.
Just a few months after Magic City Soccer hired Kyle Bakas, as its first-ever full-time executive director, Magic City merged with Edge Soccer Academy to form a new organization, Billings United Soccer Club.
As part of that merger, which was announced in mid-October, Sara Campbell, who had been the part-time director for Edge, was brought on as the full-time director of coaching for Billings United.
Together, Bakas and Campbell, both 30 years old, are introducing a new concept of club play to Billings, one that involves coaching all players in each age group as a unit, to bring consistency to coaching methods and to better identify and promote key players.
Though new to Billings, the concept was familiar to both Bakas and Campbell and is common around the world and around the country, and is already in place in Bozeman.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Lisa Maynard, acting board president of Billings United. “We’re very excited about it. I think it’s going to be great for the soccer community in Billings.”
Not everyone was excited about the merger, however. Some of the same parents who founded Edge as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to Magic City have now, in reaction to the end of Edge and its merger with Magic City, formed their own group, Real Billings Football Club.
Real Billings announced on Tuesday that it has hired Richard Duffy, already head soccer coach at Rocky Mountain College, as its director of coaching.
It seems safe to say, though, that Real Billings will remain an alternative, and that Billings United will be the dominant force in the local soccer scene. That’s certainly part of Bakas’ plans for the club.
He said Billings United has about 40 teams in its competitive program, with players 9 to 19 years old. There are also 420 younger players enrolled in the club’s futsal program — futsal being sort of a combination of soccer and hockey, played 5-on-5 on a playing field a little bigger than a basketball court, usually indoors.
All told, Bakas said, the club serves 700 to 800 players a year, a number he hopes to raise to 2,000 or more. Since arriving in Billings Aug. 1, Bakas has also met with many elementary school principals, and this fall he organized Billings United’s first partnership with a local school — Newman Elementary on South Billings Boulevard.
That program, for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, ran a little more than a month this fall. Bakas hopes to expand the program to other South Side schools first, then to as many others as would like to participate.
“The list of things he’s done is amazing,” Maynard said. “He’s done more, in my opinion, than I ever expected to be done in the short amount of time he’s been here.”
Terry Stapleton, who was president of the Magic City Soccer board when the decision was made to hire a full-time director, said that when Bakas came aboard, merging with Edge was not something anyone on the board envisioned.
Bakas, a native of Southern California who most recently coached soccer in Duluth, Minn., started working by phone on July 15, until he could move here on Aug. 1. Stapleton said Bakas made an amazing number of contacts, trying to get a feel for the soccer community in Billings, and what people’s expectations were.
He wasn’t given Sara Campbell’s name, since she was running the other club in town, but so many people mentioned Campbell that he finally called her — and discovered a kindred spirit.
“We see the game in similar lights,” Bakas said, “and we decided we could develop a more cohesive soccer culture by consolidating” the two clubs.
Not that it was a fast or an easy conclusion. Campbell, a Billings native who played for the University of Montana before playing professionally in the United States and overseas, worked as the technical director for Magic City Soccer when she returned to Billings six years ago.
“I felt there were missing pieces in that organization,” she said, though she declined to say what they were, and so when a group of parents and parent-coaches came to her with the idea of starting Edge Soccer Academy in 2014, she was signed on as the director.
Partly because of what happened with Magic City after her time there, and partly because of changes Bakas had in mind, “a lot of those missing pieces … have been filled,” she said.
It still wasn’t an easy decision to merge with Magic City. She said she and Bakas talked for a couple of months about the idea, sometimes for hours at a time. They then went to their respective boards to pitch the idea of a merger. Campbell said she told the Edge board that she would stick with the club if it decided against the merger.
But the board approved it, as did the board for Magic City.
Campbell said she and Bakas have similar educational backgrounds and both have “A” licenses, the highest you can get from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Both of them knew how other clubs had made good use of the concept of coaching by age rather than team, which they believe is better for the coaches and better for the players.
“I think they deserve that,” Campbell said of the players. “This format also allows us to educate coaches and make sure coaches have the information and have the tools to pass it along to other coaches.”
As Bakas described it, the new structure works like this: There are no tryouts, but every player is evaluated in eight categories, then assigned to a team of players with similar skills. If there were four teams of 15-year-olds, for instance, they’d all practice together, with four coaches.
But one of the coaches would direct the other three, again in pursuit of consistency. As a player got better, Bakas said, he or she might be moved to one of the other teams. Or, if a good player was having trouble with confidence, he might be assigned temporarily to a less capable team. The goal is always to make the most of each player’s talents.
Bakas doesn’t take credit for any of the techniques used by Billings United. He learned many of the concepts in Alexandria, Va., where he spent three years coaching.
“They’ve done a lot of amazing things, so I’ve stolen a lot from them,” he said.
Bakas also acknowledges that Billings United raised its participation costs, but only after evaluating how much parents were paying above and beyond basic fees — paying for things like fields and tournaments and hotels and rental cars for coaches.
The spring fee now is the only cost, and it is set at $750 for players 9 to 11 and $1,150 for older players.
“But that’s everything,” Bakas said. “They don’t have to buy anything else unless their kid needs a new uniform.”
He also said that parents can make a series of smaller payments, and some scholarships are available, and the club hopes to make the scholarship fund larger every year.
Partly in response to those higher prices, Real Billings Football Club is offering what it describes as “a competitive, affordable, and flexible soccer experience for players and players’ families.”
Real Billings president Martin Smith said the club saves money by doing much less travel and avoiding some fees. The Real Billings teams play each other and also look for scrimmages and “friendlies” with other teams in Montana, including, in the past, Magic City teams and teams in Laurel and Bozeman.
Real Billings teams will also play in open tournaments. Registration hasn’t started yet, Smith said, but indications are that they’ll have about 150 players on 10 teams, with players 7 to 14 years old.
Duffy, the recently hired director for Real Billings, said in a press release that his goal is to “create a positive player environment within a family friendly atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, Billings United is pushing ahead a month into its creation via the merger. In addition to Bakas and Campbell, who are both full-time, Kevin Luse is the part-time director of player development and also runs two teams and two of the club’s programs.
Under Magic City, Luse was the director of coaching under executive director Dennis Pyburn, and both were part-time positions.
Maynard, the acting board president of Billings United, said she has confidence in the future of the club because Bakas, in addition to his knowledge and technical skills as a coach and player, is a good communicator.
“Kyle is always approachable, and he always answers questions from players, coaches and families,” she said. “And that’s something that’s also very important to the club concept.”
Stapleton, the former board president, said it was a “leap of faith” to agree to the merger with Edge, and to let Bakas and Campbell pursue their transformation of the soccer culture in Billings. Now, she said, she thinks the board made the right choice.
“This is going to bring the best soccer minds together to produce the best product,” she said.
For Campbell, the merger and the adoption of the club concept is all part of a larger personal plan.
When she ended her playing career and decided to move back to Billings, she said, “I knew that my goal was to come back here … to try to give the players here more than I had growing up.”