Mike Gamble runs a drill during Baltimore Bays Chelsea soccer… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
A member of the top-rated youth soccer program in the country, Mike Gamble was asked what it felt like to put on the Baltimore Bays' jersey.
Gamble, currently on the club's under-16 team and one of the U.S.'s most promising players, hinted that the better question may have been whether he ever takes the jersey off.
"In my house and everywhere I go, I'm always wearing Bays stuff because I feel so much pride," said Gamble, the team's top striker who is set to play for McDonogh as a junior this fall. "I don't have words to explain how it feels, but wearing the Bays uniform just makes me happy. I'm always smiling whenever I'm wearing that uniform."
This weekend, the Bays take their under-16 and under-18 teams to compete in the U.S. Developmental Academy League Championships at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., in a weeklong tournament.
Starting July 20, the Bays' under-15 team, coached by Brandon Quaranta, will compete in the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships in Overland Park, Kan.
When the Soccer Club of Baltimore and the Baltimore Football Club merged to form the Bays in 2002, and then standout coach Steve Nichols came aboard in 2005, the immediate goal was to dominate the state of Maryland.
The club, comprised of 48 boys and girls teams starting at under-8 through under-23, has hugely exceeded expectations.
On the boys side, the Bays have taken over the country -- winning six national championships during the five years in age groups ranging from under-14 to under-19.
Two national titles have come in each of the past two years. The Bays, who have been grooming a number of players on U.S. national team pools, have been ranked the country's No. 1 club by Soccer America in both years.
Starting this weekend, the bid for more championships begins.
"What we always tell our kids is we have to respect what came before us because they made the program that you're getting rewards off of," said Bays president Kevin Healey, who also is an assistant coach to Nichols. "And then our goal for each team is to make it better for the kids that are coming up after them. That always provides a challenge to them and they've always accepted it."
The club's philosophy is direct and goes beyond just winning.
Nichols and Healey look for character players who will buy into the club's system. The players challenge each other vigorously in practice and employ a high-pressure style during games.
"We hold kids accountable and you have to be committed," said Nichols, who has won an unprecedented eight national championships, including two prior to joining the Bays program. "We're proud of what we do and what we stand for. ÃÂ We're a good ole Baltimore club. We're very good and very talented, but I think we're also very feisty, up in your face and we play harder than anybody in the country."
The club's most prominent player to date, former high school Gatorade and NSCAA National Player of the Year Chris Agorsor (McDonogh), said his practice time with the Bays provided some of his most valuable life lessons and helped shape the person he has become today.
After helping lead the Bays to three of its national titles -- the final one coming for the under-19 team last year -- Agorsor, 20, is preparing to join a professional club overseas after playing two years at the University of Virginia.
Fully recovered from a knee injury suffered during his freshman year at Virginia, the standout striker aspires to play for the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"There were losers in practice because everything was a competition," Agorsor said. "And it wasn't to make us these machines that just loved winning, it was to instill: 'If you want to win, this is what you need to do.' So any time we would face severe adversity in a game, it wasn't foreign to us."
In addition to Agorsor, a growing list of Bays' alum has reached the professional level. Among them are D.C. United's Rodney Wallace and L.A. Galaxy's A.J. DeLaGarza -- both Maryland graduates who made the Major League Soccer All-Rookie Team in 2009.
Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski has welcomed a number of quality players from the Bays program that's helped the Terrapins gain national prominence.
"They come ready to play at Maryland because they do an unbelievable job of preparing them not only technically and tactically, but most importantly psychologically," he said. "I think the whole club is full of really good soccer people and they've built a culture there of caring for their players. You can tell when those kids play, they care about the name on the front of the jersey."
While most club teams may simply be satisfied with playing this week at The Home Depot Center, the expectations for the Bays are different.
The under-18 team is led by McDonogh grads and national pool players Marquez Fernandez (Maryland) and Mamadou Kansaye (North Carolina State), while Gamble will get help from Seth Moses (a senior at Loch Raven this fall) and others on the top-ranked under-16 team.
"We're ready," Kansaye siad. "And the coming week, we're just looking forward to playing hard and winning."