Recreational, select teams to square off

There will be more at stake than just first-place bragging rights when 60 soccer teams participate in the third annual Copa ESPN this weekend at McInnish Soccer Complex in Carrollton.

Sure, there's a huge team trophy, individual awards and commemorative jerseys for the champions, but the tournament -- which pits the area's best recreational teams against select and classic squads -- gives recreational players the opportunity to be scouted.

"It's about chasing your dream and keep on pushing forward," tournament manager Roger Sosa said. "If we can be that bridge for you to meet that coach that's going to invest his life into you to take you to that next level, that's why we're here."

Sosa's childhood experiences as a first-generation student in North Dallas gave him the idea for the event. His parents didn't have a lot of money, but his father still sacrificed to give Sosa the best opportunity, even if that meant shelling out big bucks to play select sports.

"There's a lot of talent in the Hispanic community that can play select ball, but the problem is the parents don't have the money for them to play with these Andromedas and Solas. They've got the talent. Their parents just don't have the time or the money."

The number of applications has tripled since the inception of Copa ESPN, but Sosa insisted on keeping the format true to its original template: 12 teams in five age categories -- Under-8, 10, 12, 14 and 16 -- with half the teams from recreational leagues and the other half from select and classic leagues.

During the selection process, Sosa and his committee carefully looks at each application, analyzing the recreational teams differently than the select and classic teams. Sosa focuses on teams that have won their respective leagues in order to keep the tournament competitive, but he throws in "underdogs" -- non-championship teams that Sosa believes can be competitive playing on nicer fields.

"I actually go take the time to see some of these kids," Sosa said. "... I'll go out there and I'll be like, 'Dang, look at these fields that these kids are playing on!' Very talented kids, but they don't have any other option."

A few recreational players have already reaped benefits from Copa ESPN. In its first year, two players were invited to try out for C.F. Monterrey's soccer academy, a Mexican soccer club that's a part of the Primera Division de Mexico. Last year, a 12-year-old was scouted by FC Dallas and was one of 16 players to compete in MLS Dream, a program that finds undiscovered young players.

Copa ESPN also benefits the select and classic teams participating in the event, allowing managers to offer a scholarship to hidden gems.

"This gives really good exposure for those players," said Andromeda manager Chris Bancroft, whose team is competing in Copa ESPN for the first time. "In the younger years, you see coaches going to rec tournaments to scout players, and that seems to dwindle as they get older. This venue really helps in that way."

Copa ESPN drew 10,000 people last year over three days. Riding off that success, Sosa implemented a soccer clinic last August that brought current and retired soccer players in to teach fundamentals to kids. The free two-hour event drew 700 people.

Sosa hopes this year's event surpasses 15,000, but he wants to expand it to more than just a once-a-year event.

"The plan is to stretch it out as long as we can," Sosa said. "Whether it's a league, creating another tournament or creating more clinics, the goal is to help these kids out.

"I think we have created something special here in Dallas-Fort Worth. ... We can change lives and make a difference in these kids."

Master Tesfatsion is a reporter for ESPNDallas.com.