SOCCER: ‘A tough decision for the best;’ plug pulled on TWIST 2021

SOCCER: ‘A tough decision for the best;’ plug pulled on TWIST 2021

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WALLINGFORD — There was some thought given to downsizing the tournament. Maybe fewer teams could be invited.

Maybe fields in adjacent towns could be used to spread things out.

In the end, the directors of The Wallingford Invitational Soccer Tournament rejected those notions.

Their event had a reputation, a brand built up over a history of 35 years. There were loyalties and expectations among participating teams that could not be trifled with.

And this just isn’t a tournament to export beyond town borders. “Wallingford” is right there in the name.

So, for a second straight year, acknowledging the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers have pulled the plug on TWIST. The 36th annual edition will have to wait until 2022 to be played.

“We’re one of the most highly regarded tournaments in the region. If we put a lesser product out there, we’re very concerned on how that’s going to be perceived,” TWIST co-director Dave Rodriguez said Thursday. “We have a great relationship with the clubs that come. They’re used to a level of service and level of play.

”We thought — and this was a tough call — for the reputation of the tournament, to sit out this year.”

Rodriguez and fellow directors Brian Burr and Sean Stowik began debating the issue back in January. They were in contact with health departments and the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association. They dove into return-to-play guidelines for youth sports. They looked for a way to make 2021 happen.

But even as Connecticut emerged from the darkest days of COVID winter and vaccines were rolled out, even though prospects are bright for summer, when the tournament is held in mid-August, there was reason for concern. Some teams in the Wallingford Youth Soccer League, their spring season under way, were going into quarantine. The virus threat may have been reduced, but it wasn’t gone.

The influx of people into Wallingford had to be considered, too. TWIST attracts more than 100 teams, a fair number from out of state, who circulate not merely on the town’s soccer fields, but in its hotels and restaurants.

From a purely soccer point of view, if any teams had to quarantine, the tournament schedule would blow up. That would not go over well. Teams that commit cash and book hotels and travel to town for a three-day tournament expect to play.

“It’s different if you’re running an in-town league or a district,” Rodriguez said. “When you’re talking about the associated costs of cancelling games when you’ve got hotels — it’s a lot of moving parts we didn’t want to put our teams through.

“The final straw was when the kids came back from school break,” Rodriguez also noted. “On the youth soccer side, we just quarantined teams left and right. We’ve been hit hard. Obviously, things should be better in August, but we just want to be able to go full-bore without any worries, without any restrictions, and with everyone in town more at ease.”

Rodriguez noted that some soccer tournaments have been held this spring. They are smaller than TWIST and a couple spread out among multiple towns in an effort at social distancing.

Rodriguez and his fellow directors didn’t mull this option for very long.

“This is a Wallingford tournament; it’s always been a Wallingford tournament,” he said. “We felt we just couldn’t go forward with a partial product.”

What helped ease the decision, Rodriguez added, is the fact that TWIST is a not-for-profit event. It is staged by volunteers. While the tournament raises money for annual scholarships (see related story) and Wallingford soccer field fund, there is no real economic pressure to run it every year.

The greater windfall, ostensibly, is enjoyed by Wallingford businesses.

“We have a big impact on the town economically,” Rodriguez said. “I think restaurants will be (operating) full-bore come August, but we’re just in a pattern. Even the tournaments that have gone on so far, there have been some issues. We’ve seen it.”

The irony is TWIST 2021 has been cancelled at a time of rising demand. Participation in youth soccer is up — at least it is in the Wallingford Youth Soccer League. Enrollment among players ages 4-6 has doubled this year from last year. WYSL numbers for ages 7-10 aren’t far behind.

“We were very surprised,” Rodriguez said. “We were prepared for a 20-percent increase, but in all 16 of my years in the club we’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve had to revamp our schedules and move foot skills to different fields just for parking alone.”

WYSL soccer will continue through the spring — the in-town leagues, the travel teams. As the school year ends and families start to head off to summer vacations, that will be it. There will be no TWIST to return home to in August.

Don’t worry, though. Dates for TWIST 2022 are already on the calendar.

“We’re already working toward that and looking forward to it,” said Rodriguez. “It was a tough decison, but overall we think it’s the best.”

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