Central Minnesota soccer academy creating opportunities for top area players
Central Minnesota girls soccer club competes against high-level competition and creates soccer opportunities post high school. This is part two of a two-part feature. Part one ran in the 7/23 issue of the Echo Press and can be found at www.echopress.com.
Jonathan and Heidi LeMieur never grew up in soccer. Jonathan was a football player while Heidi was a swimmer. But when their daughters found a love for the game and a local soccer club needed a boost, they decided to offer a hand.
Xolos Academy FC MN out of Brainerd and Baxter is a soccer club that aims to develop local talent into high-level players at their respective age groups. While preaching the values of sportsmanship, Xolos strive to implement the values of soccer beyond wins and losses.
Ricky Lacerte was coaching the Brainerd girls high school team eight years ago and was looking to increase engagement with his players at a more competitive level in the offseason.
“I grew up playing soccer in Southern California, but after college, I hung up my boots,” Lacerte said. “When I turned 30, I moved to Minnesota for my wife’s family. They told me to try and coach some soccer just to be involved in the sport again.”
Lacerte has a family connection in the front office of the Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, also known as Xolos. Pronounced “Show-Los,” the Mexican professional soccer club out of Tijuana competes in Liga MX, and has been playing since 2006.
But how does this connect to rural Minnesota? When Lacerte started a club in Brainerd called United North Academy, the family friend in the Xolos front office took notice.
“My uncle’s friend is the general manager, and he wanted me to come down to California to run an academy in their youth program,” Lacerte said. “He saw that I was having success as a coach, and they wanted to break into the U.S. market because there’s a lot of potential here. There was a Xolos Academy in Chula Vista, California. That went along with their professional team and academies in Mexico. I convinced them to let me run an academy in Minnesota.”
Xolos Academy FC MN is a club of four youth teams filled with primarily Brainerd players along with girls from surrounding areas, including Alexandria, Little Falls and Grand Rapids. It was the first Xolos academy based outside of Mexico or California.
LeMieur’s take over
Lacerte would be the first to say he isn’t the best when it comes to running a soccer program. That’s where the LeMieur family stepped in.
Jonathan and Heidi LeMieur have three daughters who play soccer and were looking to take their game a step forward outside of the current local programs. Xolos was a natural fit for the players, and Lacerte needed help off the field.
“I am a horrible club manager; just awful,” Lacerte said. “Luckily, Jonathan and Heidi took an interest in the club. They kind of spearheaded almost everything behind the scenes. That let me work with the coaches more when they took over. The reason we needed that is because we need dedicated coaches to merge the creative Mexican style with the tactical aggressive style the Americans play.”
Xolos Academy FC MN has had hundreds of players around different age groups. The club started with mostly Brainerd players, but through local connections in and out of soccer, it expanded to players from around central Minnesota.
Ricky is no longer coaching in the Xolos Academy FC MN program. With four kids of his own, he decided to take a step back.
“I (started the club) for the passion of the sport and the future of my daughter’s programs in the sport,” Lacerte said. “This is going to help people not have to drive down to the cities to play at that higher level. I think Jonathan and Heidi would be crazy to stick around after their daughters are done playing just because they know, deep down, it’s so much work.”
Even after their daughters graduate, Jonathan and Heidi plan to stick around with Xolos, despite Lacerte’s advice.
“We wanted to be involved at a deeper level early on because it’s hard to do this whole thing by yourself,” Heidi said. “We don’t see this as a short-term thing like some people in the community probably did. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it. Our family is heavily entrenched in the club, so our goal is to have this continue so other families can feel what we felt.”
Opportunities past high school
The U18 Xolos team won the USA Cup in the Silver I Division at the U19 level two weekends ago at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Prior to this win, Xolos had two prior teams bring home the Cup (in 2015 and 2016). It was the first time this oldest group had come away with a USA Cup championship.
In that tournament, Xolos played against other teams with talented players from around the country and outscored opponents 27-3. Playing and beating high-level players increases collegiate exposure.
“When we register for tournaments, we aren’t registering at the bottom levels,” Jonathan said. “If they are showcase tournaments, like the USA Cup, coaches are attending. They aren’t watching lower-level games. We really promote the camps that the colleges and other premier clubs from around the state and in North and South Dakota host. We are constantly promoting opportunities that exist and help the girls that have the skill and desire to go on (after high school) realize that there are options out there.”
During his time as a high school head coach, Lacerte ran into problems getting his players connected with collegiate coaches. He decided that to get his players noticed, he would need to change the culture around soccer past the metro area.
“The first thing I did as a high school coach was email every college coach in the state and told them I was interested in establishing relationships with them,” Lacerte said. “One of the coaches in Duluth emailed me back. In less than a few words, he said that Brainerd doesn’t produce soccer players. That pissed me off. I wanted to prove him wrong.”
“We’ve taken a small town and merged it with other small towns,” Lacerte said. “Xolos take on big cities, and they win. These girls are dedicated. One comment I saw about us when we started was, ‘If Xolos have a soccer team in Minnesota, they have the best team in the state.’ We don’t yet, but we’re getting there.”