Gulf Coast United Director of Coaching Oleg "Chic" Chichkanov is used to juggling dozens of area soccer players at a time for practices at the Gulfport Sportsplex, but this weekend, he'll have an even bigger crowd on his hands.
The Futbol Club hosts their annual Gulf Coast United Spring Cup and Showcase this weekend, and they're expecting their biggest turnout in the club's history.
"Last year we had over 150 teams, it was one of the bigger tournaments we had," Chichkanov said. "This year we have 212 teams coming from all over the place. It's without a question, the biggest soccer tournament we had here since I moved in here 20 years ago."
The participants include girls and boys soccer players, aged anywhere from 9 to 19 years old.
For some of the older players, like Ocean Springs junior Kealan Baggett, this presents a great opportunity to showcase their talents to college coaches looking for that next big star.
"Colleges will come down and watch us play," Baggett said. "With these kind of tournaments, colleges will be looking for players like us and really just to show off our abilities."
As the annual tournament grows, it also grows more exclusive. Simply due to a lack of field space, the Cup had to turn down as many as 25 teams. But with that sort of demand, it's a strong sign that soccer's popularity in the area is here to stay.
"It's just growing," Baggett said of soccer's popularity in the area. "It's just getting bigger and bigger. It's something that is just getting better and better. It's good for us."
"Soccer is without a question the fastest growing sport right now we have in this country," Chichkanov said. "We just went from 100 teams two-three years ago to 200 teams. It just shows you the growth of soccer in this area."
The tournament kicks off Saturday, March 18 at 8 a.m. and runs through Sunday, March 19.