A group of 16 young soccer players from Mercer Island will experience the trip of a lifetime when they embark upon an 11-day stay in China, starting later this week by mixing soccer and a cultural experience.
The trip, which begins Friday and runs through Aug. 4, is the brainchild of part-time Mercer Island resident Wei Zhang, a native of Dalian, China, who also has a home in San Diego.
Zhang presented the idea of the trip to former Mercer Island High School standout Colin Rigby. Rigby, a 2003 graduate of MI and the current Islanders boys head coach, was receptive and will lead his Mercer Island United FC boys U12 soccer team on the upcoming adventure.
“I don’t know of a U.S. team that has ever gone to Dalian, China, to play soccer, and for that matter, I don’t know of anyone going anywhere else in China for soccer,” said Rigby, who will enter his third season as head coach of the Mercer Island High School boys soccer team next spring. “I think a trip like this is pretty darn rare. The opportunity is one in a million.”
The 16-member MI FC team will play three matches during the 11-day trip, which will begin with two days of sightseeing in China’s capital of Beijing.
“China hasn’t necessarily been a strong soccer country, so other places have been the destination for [U.S.] teams looking for competition,” Rigby said.
The team will participate in the Sino-U.S. Youth Soccer Invitation Tournament in Dalian, China.
The first match is July 30 against Dalian U12 champion team at Northeast Road Primary School. The second match is Aug. 1 versus Dalian Aerbin U13 Club, which a youth academy team under the umbrella of pro team Dalian Aerbin Club. The final match is Aug. 2 against Dalian U13 champion team, which Rigby says will be the “biggest challenge” of the trip and ranks as an equivalent to U.S. regional team.
“The underlying goal of the trip is to raise awareness of soccer in China,” Rigby said. “It’s safe to say that people in China are probably getting more out of this. The goal is to get China more on the map with soccer.
“The two countries are helping grow interest in soccer in China. This is with the hope to get the country to back the sport. This is something their government is involved with over there.”
Rigby’s MI FC boys U12 team won the state Sounders Cup in February.
“Hopefully, we can give them an example of a country that’s building as a soccer country,” Rigby said. “Also, this trip can help others look at America as an up-and-coming soccer country. We can show that this is a new age.”
Rigby’s U12 team put on a banquet on Sunday where each player was involved in a presentation about China in preparation for the trip. Players touched on subjects like The Great Wall of China, food, manners, history and things to do while visiting.
“I’ll be doing interviews with a lot of their media and giving them a lot of information about what we’re trying to do to grow the [soccer] culture here [in the U.S.],” he said.
Rigby played two seasons at the University of Denver prior to transferring to Seattle Pacific University and graduating from there in 2007. He was drafted by the Portland Timbers of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) First Division and played two-plus seasons professionally, including one with the USL Seattle Sounders. He also played in Germany for a lower level pro team before retiring.
As an Islander player, Rigby made the state tournament three seasons in a row, including a Class 3A state runner-up finish in 2001. He also had a state runner-up showing as an Islander assistant in 2012, before taking over the program in 2013.
For those wanting more details of the trip, follow the team blog at www.daliansoccer.com.