By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily
The nation that knocked the United States out of the FIFA World Cup last week will send one of its youth teams to train in Decatur for three weeks in August.
The Under-17 Ghana women’s team will use the Jack Allen Recreation Complex from Aug. 7 to Sept. 1 in preparation for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Trinidad-Tobago during September.
Getting the Ghana national soccer team was a collaborative effort between Kayla Riggs, special events director for the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics officials, said Tami Reist, bureau president.
“Her persistence should lead to an economic impact of over $300,000 for Decatur and Morgan County and further elevate the Jack Allen Recreational Complex as a world-class facility,” Reist said.
Ghana will travel 6,500 miles to Decatur, bringing 21 players and 14 coaches. The team, known as the Black Maidens, qualified for the inaugural U-17 World Cup in 2008 but failed to get past the opening round. It will be one of 14 teams in Trinidad-Tobago.
It’s common for a national team to train outside its borders when preparing for international competition, said Kurt Melcher, Robert Morris University women’s soccer head coach, who assists the Ghana team and recommended Decatur as a practice site. He said he also recommended the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and Empire United Soccer Academy in Syracuse, N.Y.
Ghana coach Alex Asante wanted to train in a humid climate similar to the Caribbean island nation, and Decatur was one of three facilities that met that requirement as well as being affordable, available and high quality, Melcher said.
“They were looking for a quality field, and I know that championship field is immaculate,” he said, noting his NAIA school played at Jack Allen. “And they’ll be a big fish in a small pond, and I think they’ll appreciate some of the media attention and youth attention.”
Riggs said getting a national team to stay in Decatur for three weeks is a happy accident that grew from a November brainstorming session with Lori Boger, the bureau’s group sales director, about how to get NAIA teams competing in the national championship to return. Their plan was a Fall Preview, in which the city would allow NAIA soccer teams free use of Jack Allen for a game in exchange for spending the night in a Decatur hotel.
The NAIA sent that invitation to its participating schools. William Carey College and Lindsey Wilson University are two teams that accepted the offer. Then Melcher inquired whether the same offer would apply to a long-term visit.
“It was just a shot in the dark that led to something greater than we ever imagined,” Riggs said. “And it never would have happened if we hadn’t have hosted NAIA soccer.”
Ghana is not the first national team to play at Jack Allen’s 10 international size, lighted soccer fields with laser-graded turf. The soccer complex was host to exhibition matches between the Mexican women’s national team and Duke University in 2006 and Mexico and Argentina 2007.