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Soccer tournament expected to be boon for city


Adam Minichino



Tom Velek hoped last week he could return from a trip to Vicksburg with something to invigorate the city of Columbus. 


What happened at the Mississippi Soccer Association's annual meeting exceeded Velek's wildest dreams. 


Now, Velek, the city of Columbus, the Columbus Convention and Visitor's Bureau, the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority, the Columbus United Soccer Club, and soccer fans, parents, friends, and volunteers have to start compiling a to-do list for a pair of events that are expected to be a boon to the area. 


On Monday, the CCVB and CLRA announced and the city of Columbus will play host to the Coaches Cup tournament Nov. 2-3 and the Presidents Cup on May 24-25, 2014. The events are two of the four state cups that attract MSA teams from across the state, and are awarded to cities in a bid process. Velek, the vice president of Division II soccer for MSA, attended the meeting in Vicksburg hoping that Columbus would get to earn a chance to play host to at least one event at its new Burns Bottom Soccer Complex. He had no idea MSA's 12 council members would vote unanimously to award Columbus the chance to play host to two events. 


"I was a little surprised we got it," Velek said, referring specifically to the Presidents Cup, an event that will feature 130 teams, but also to the fact Columbus won the opportunity to have two tournaments. "What I expected for them to do was to say you do the Coaches Cup tournament next year and let's see how you do in 2015 and then we see about your bid for the Presidents Cup. It is pretty neat. It is a big vote of confidence considering we don't have a big track record of doing them. 


"If I tweeted, I would have Tweeted. Instead I Facebooked." 


Velek, the director of competitive soccer for Columbus United, CLRA's Division II competitive soccer club, believes the city of Columbus hasn't hosted a soccer tournament since 1997. He credits the backing of the CCVB and the work of CLRA program director Greg Lewis, who also attended the meeting in Vicksburg as chairman of the rules committee, for helping Columbus secure the bids. Velek also praised the support of Terry Eguaoje, MSA's technical director of coaching and player development. Last year, Eguaoje toured the new Burns Bottom facility and the rest of the city of Columbus' soccer facilities and infrastructure. He came away impressed and realized the amount of support the city gave to its youth sports programs, particularly soccer. Velek said Eguaoje spoke up at the meeting to offer a vote of confidence to Columbus. He believes Eguaoje's comments played an integral part in the council's vote. 


"It was one of the toughest bids we have had," Eguaoje said. "Normally we beg for people to host these tournaments. We had very good bids, and I am very proud of Columbus to snatch two out of that. It tells me how much Greg Lewis and Dr. Velek have put into soccer in Columbus." 


Eguaoje said the tournaments will attract the state's best boys and girls players in the Under-8 to U-19 age divisions. The Coaches Cup is expected to bring 40-50 teams to Columbus, while the Presidents Cup will have 130. He said the tournaments will have a major economic impact on the city. 


"Every kid who is coming to Columbus to play soccer will bring a mom, a dad, a brother, a sister, a grandma, or a grandpa and need a place to stay and food to eat and snacks," Eguaoje said. "The tournaments will definitely open up Columbus and bring in a lot of dollars." 


Eguaoje didn't speculate on the amount of revenue the tournaments could generate, but Velek said both events could bring in $750,000 to the city. Using a MSA matrix that figures each person will spend $50 a day, not including hotels, and with 10 or more players on each team, Velek said the tournaments could generate as much as a half a million dollars in spending money. 


Eguaoje said Columbus didn't receive the tournaments only because it has a new soccer facility. He cited the amount of volunteer support and the volume of hotels and other amenities that are close to the Burns Bottom Complex as factors that aided Columbus' cause in landing the tournaments. 


Tupelo played host to the 2012 Coaches Cup. It also will play host to the Presidents Cup this year. Velek will serve as director for that tournament, which will give him a chance to see what works so he can formulate a plan to bring back to Columbus. He said the magnitude of planning two tournaments is daunting, but that he knows he will have plenty of support in the community that will help him, the CCVB, the CLRA, and Columbus United to show off the city of Columbus. 


First, though, Velek has a 25-team Columbus United tournament to plan in April. From there, he will begin to lay the foundation for the Coaches Cup. He said there will be a big push in the summer and in the fall to advertise the Coaches Cup and to reach out to contacts throughout the state to get them to come to Columbus. Since the Coaches Cup isn't a state championship, he said he and tournament organizers will need a coordinated strategy to make sure the event has a healthy number of teams. 


"From planning perspective, we can't lose sight we have the Coaches Cup in less than a year," Velek said. "The risk is we overlook it. It's like a team that thinks it has a big game the next game and it forgets it has one in between. First things first. We have to do good job at Coaches Cup because that Presidents Cup bid can be pulled at any time. ... I think if we do a good job there that is the test. That is where the nit-picking will be." 


Velek said infrastructure is going to be a big challenge to pulling off both tournaments. He said the number of teams, especially in the Presidents Cup, is going to require Burns Bottom, the Cook Soccer Complex, the Magnolia Bowl, and the Columbus High School soccer fields to be used.  


"At this point, Cook is not a viable second venue," Velek said, speaking as a tournament director who knows sites have to meet specific qualifications. "It is going to have to have work done to it, and I think CLRA knows it." 


Velek hopes Columbus United will be able to raise money at the events, possibly by playing a role in operating concessions. He also is looking forward to working with the local hotels so he can block out enough rooms well in advance to guarantee the players and their families will have plenty of places to stay. He said the Burns Bottom Soccer Complex's proximity to Highway 82 makes it possible for some players, families, and fans to stay at hotels in Starkville and/or West Point and make the 20-30 minute commute to Columbus. 


Velek said he will work with the local officials association to handle assigning games for both tournaments. For the Presidents Cup, Velek anticipates working with officials associations in Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson to ensure the tournament has enough referees. 


"We're excited," Velek said. "We're looking at 4,500 individuals for the Presidents Cup, so that's 20 percent of our population. It's going to be a challenge (to pull off both tournaments). I am glad we have a full year to plan, but without the complex it doesn't work. I think without really five to seven years of working on making Columbus a viable part of the state scene we wouldn't have been considered. The three other bids all came from communities that have more experience than us.  


"Anytime you have that many people coming to your town, it is a chance from an athletic standpoint to make a statement, but also from a community standpoint to make a statement about what kind of community you have. ... It's not going to be like Gulfport where you have to drive 20 minutes to get to anything. At Cook, you can stay at the Fairfield and be at the field in a minute. The proximity of our athletic facilities to our community offerings are exceptional and unique. Half of the time when we go to a tournament in Clinton we stay in North Jackson. That's going to be a huge impact on Columbus, and a huge opportunity for Columbus to make a statement about the type of community we have. It is because of the way we have integrated our sports facilities into the fabric of the community. That is something that is usually not done."


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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