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Big soccer plans: 2-week camp just tip of iceberg in Menominee

A camper head butts a ball at the U.S. Soccer Academy last Wednesday in Menominee. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Austin Hemmingson)

“Eventually what we’re trying to do is get an academy where they can eat, breathe and sleep it in this beautiful facility.”

— Gordon Hill, coach, U.S. Soccer Academy near Menominee

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MENOMINEE — Aaron Grunfeld has always loved soccer.

Now, he’s watching a lifelong dream of his come true right on his property.

Led by former Manchester United soccer player Gordon Hill, kids from all over the United States attended a two-week soccer camp just north of Menominee on U.S. 41 at the new U.S. Soccer Academy.

Former Manchester United star Gordon Hill helps young soccer players with a drill during a camp at the U.S. Soccer Academy last Wednesday in Menominee. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Austin Hemmingson)

The first year of the camp, which brought several players from Seattle and another from Pennsylvania, began July 20 and runs through the end of last week.

Boys between 10 and 21 years old participated in the camp, which consisted of a pair of two-hour training periods each day.

“My idea, since I was a child, is I want to be a soccer player,” said Grunfeld, who grew up in the Ukraine, former Soviet republic. “I didn’t have an opportunity at that time, so when I came to the United States (in 1971) I wanted the opportunity to help people.

“I had the opportunity and I had the financial support, so now I’ve decided to build this camp over here and help people. I want to develop soccer players. It makes me happy.”

The idea for the academy came about four years ago after Grunfeld had been helping Hill with a camp in Florida.

U.S. Soccer Academy owner Aaron Grunfeld stands with his new sign outside of the academy last Wednesday in Menominee. Grunfeld, a lifelong soccer lover, is seeing one of his dreams fulfilled with former Manchester United star Gordon Hill teaching the sport to youth at a two-week camp. The goal for the academy is to eventually have soccer taught year-round to boys and girls who hope to play college soccer or go pro. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Austin Hemmingson)

“I have a factory in Florida, and we manufacture different products of liquid silicone. (Gordon) was coaching over there in a camp together with my director of the factory. So he actually introduced me to Gordon, and I flew down to Florida and I helped to develop Gordon’s idea,” Grunfeld said. “That’s how we met. So I told Gordon, ‘Why don’t you fly up to Menominee? I have an idea also, so let’s see if we can help each other.’

“So he came over about four years ago and we just chatted a little bit and that’s how we started the idea of building the whole academy. Since then, we’ve became friends. I’ve flew many times to England to watch Manchester United soccer games. I’m a freak about soccer.”

Hill, who spent four years with Manchester United in his home country of England, started playing as a pro at age 17 and lasted about 20 years before getting into coaching and teaching.

“I love developing young players,” Hill said. “It’s nice, because to American players, it was a game that was new to them 20 or 25 years ago. To see it explode and just grow — it’s exciting. Now hopefully we can get players who can play all over the world.”

His goal? Develop players while they’re young so they can go to college and the pros ready for action.

“I’m helping develop young players to get into the system,” he said. “If I help them get into a team or get into a college or wherever, I don’t need anything from it. All I need to hear is ‘thank you.’ And then I know I’ve done my job.

“I care about every one of them. What I always say to them is the day I walk past you without saying anything, you’ve got to worry … because now I’ve decided I can’t do anything for you anymore. It happens in all sports.”

Grunfeld and Hill each have much bigger aspirations for the academy in the future, with the goal of making it into a year-round soccer facility.

“I’m really looking to develop young players — not just players from in the area, but players from across the country. They’re coming, they’re looking, they’re learning,” Hill said. “Eventually what we’re trying to do is get an academy where they can eat, breathe and sleep it in this beautiful facility.

“Like any other sport, you don’t do it on a part-time basis to get to the top, and that’s what I’m trying to deliver. But I’m trying to deliver it differently than the traditional way where you go to college and come out of college at (age) 22. Soccer players need to be developed at 16 and 17 to challenge the world.

“For anybody interested, it will be a full-blown college academy where they will stay with us for 10 or 11 months of the year. It’s like a boarding school for soccer.

“It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be very, very tough. But what’s the next level? It’s tough. What I always tell players is somebody is always standing behind you, wanting to step in. That’s the next level we’re getting them ready for, but it takes time to put it into effect.”

Grunfeld wants to see the academy expand with more fields and more room for players — both boys and girls.

“Right now we only have enough room for the boys team, so next year we want to make an addition for the girls. We want to present equal opportunities,” he said. “I’d like to expand with more fields and make the kids want to come here…. What I want to do is have a world-class soccer camp. That’s my dream.”

The camp has followed all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including temperature checks being conducted every day. Hill noted the coronavirus pandemic has stopped some other squads from coming in.

“This is the opening of it for me,” Hill said. “This is the first time the boys have been on the field and this is the first time we’ve had it at the academy. It’s trial and error, but we are really pleased with what we’ve got going…. I love this. This is players really playing at their best, and they’re enjoying themselves.”

As the focus shifts on growing the academy from basic camps to year-round teaching, Hill knows it will be a process.

“This is not happening overnight, it’s a process,” he said. “Patience is going to be a gift. It’s a work in progress, so we have to wait.”

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