he COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the seasons of the Mt. Lebanon Soccer Association (MLSA) teams this year. While that has been difficult, it hardly defines an organization that for 50 years has not only persisted, but also grown tremendously.
The MLSA’s half-century celebration, set for November, is also on hold, but, as usual, organizers will adapt. They have had a lot of practice at pivoting, dribbling around obstacles and, when necessary, executing a deft redirection.
“In order for the association to stay alive, it has to change with the times,” says Brienne Colby Sembrat, of the Foster School area. Sembrat is an MLSA board member, former player and the daughter of Dale Colby, the association’s first president.“It’s really a story of thousands of people who kept it alive by changing, by developing vibrant programs that met the needs of the families, the kids at the time,” she says.
From the start, when Rod Agar and George Kesel assembled a team boys aged 9 to 14 in 1970, to 1975, when one of the region’s first girls programs was born, to having Sally Taylor as its first female president in 1995, to today, the MLSA has stood as an inclusive, safe, fun outlet for those who want to play or otherwise be involved in the sport much of the world reveres and calls football.
Under normal circumstances, there are year-round teams for all youth ages in three types of leagues: recreational, developmental and competitive, the last of which includes travel teams.
Among the offerings is TOPSoccer for special-needs boys and girls ages 6 and up; Futsal, a less structured experience focused on fun; summer camps; goalkeeper training; referee training; and a chance to develop skills by working with UK Trainers, a soccer exchange program that brings skilled players here from the United Kingdom.
The MLSA even helps schedule and facilitate a couple of adult teams in a regional league.
Even since the latest turn of the century, the association has grown.
“We were small,” board member and community relations director Lisa Borrelli Dorn, of Bower Hill Road, says of not so many years ago. “We did everything ourselves. The board was maybe 10, 15 people. Now the board measures about 30.”
A large number of volunteers have served as a backbone as the number of players has increased. By the 1990s, there were more than 1,000 players under the MLSA umbrella. Numbers for 2020 are not available for obvious reasons, but for some reference, last year there were 380 children signed up for Lebo Cup, which is just one program, with 22 travel teams, including seven girls teams.
The growth is astonishing to Agar, 83, who moved this year to Texas but has been reflecting on the organization he helped found in 1970.
“We had the foundation, and we kept building,” Agar says. “Day One, I had no idea where we were going. We kind of just inched along.”
When the MLSA was formed, popular adult leagues were in the area dating to the 1800s—among them Heidelberg, Harmarville, Bethel Park, Beaver Falls and, very close to home, Beadling—that grew out of mining communities where immigrants brought their soccer balls.
Those communities also had begun to offer youth leagues, but Agar wanted an alternative to the rough and tumble soccer culture they brought from Europe.
According to Agar, those existing clubs brought in ringers—he remembers being suspicious of a player on a Beadling team of 14-year-olds who had a beard and ponytail. Referees would check to see that cleats weren’t over-sharpened and warn against kicks to sensitive areas, and a ref who called a game-changing penalty might find his tires vandalized.
Agar and Kesel matriculated from prep school soccer, Agar at Berkshire School in New England, Kesel at Shady Side Academy. “We had teas after the game,” Agar says, but he found that the existing soccer organizations were “old-time. After the games, the men would go out and get drunk.”
When Agar mentioned to members of the Beadling Club he wanted to start a girls program, “They thought I was absolutely crazy,” he says. “I hate to say it, but they thought the place of the woman was in the home.”
Sembrat sure was grateful for the MLSA girls teams. She began playing as a grade-schooler later in the 1970s and recognizes the importance and evolution of girls soccer. She went on to play in high school and college and launched a coaching career that took her up to the college level.
In an essay about the MLSA, Sembrat wrote that the organization is, in part, “a story of little sisters who wanted to play like their older brothers back in the ’70s. It is now, in 2020, sometimes a story of little brothers who want to play the game like their older sisters.”
Until earlier this year, Sembrat was the MLSA’s long-time director of player and coach development, and she’s proud of the way the organization has not only grown, but has done so in a way that offers the most benefit to the community.
That includes bringing in professional trainers while still keeping costs reasonable. It also means that when the association caught the national wave of offering soccer to very young children, it did so in an educated manner.
“There’s a certain way to develop kids at that age. You don’t put them 11 vs. 11 on the field. You put them three vs. three on the field,” Sembrat says. “Maybe five or six years ago we developed a first- and second-grade program with developmental guidelines that were really about running and small-sided games and activities that disguised the skill-building, really making it enjoyable for the kids while they grew in the game.”
All that from such humble beginnings.
n addition to being interviewed for this story, Agar wrote some thoughts in an email, including this one from the earliest days:
“George Kesel and I underwrote the first year’s team expenses during the season. At season’s end we requested donations from parents. The 1970 request was for $13 per player. We only had a couple of soccer balls and recycled uniforms at season’s end. As we had a shortfall the first couple of years, we approached the Parents Athletic Council, who would generously grant us $100 to $200. The early year-end banquets were (at) Mike’s Pizza on Bower Hill Road, funded by George Kesel in 1970. We gave out trophies, etc. I think it was the fifth year when the year-end banquet was a spaghetti dinner at St Paul’s Episcopal Church for some 150 players, coaches and parents. Katie Flaherty, who volunteered to help, didn’t realize she was chief cook! Such fond memories.”
Eventually, Agar realized it was time to execute one of those pivots and cede his tight grip on the MLSA.
“I was trying to step away,” he says. “I finally realized in ’94. I said, ‘It’s healthy enough, after 24 years of managing this thing, to just walk away and stop trying to control things and let things take off.’”
Dale Colby already was part of the next generation, and Sembrat has continued in the cleated steps of her late father.
There are still challenges, still room for growth to meet the needs of the community. The MLSA doesn’t even have enough fields to comfortably accommodate everyone.
Borrelli Dorn pointed out that there is money in the Mt. Lebanon Community Endowment Fund for a field, and there is an active search for places to build a dedicated field to use and rent to others.
In the meantime, “We use anything and everything,” she says. “Essentially we are on the turf, we are on Rock Pile, we are on Wildcat, we are on the elementary schools, we are on Jefferson. We’ve also gone outside the area to get field space, some churches that have fields.”
It’s just one more obstacle that won’t stop the MLSA. Who knows what the next 50 years will bring?
For updates, visit MLSA.org.