Boys high school soccer looks as competitive as ever going into the 2009 season. But by the time the European Division tournaments roll around May 20-23, the most heated race figures to be in Division III.

Defending champion AFNORTH, multitalented Baumholder, perennial Italy powers and former champions American Overseas School of Rome (’97-00, ’02-’05) and Marymount (2006) and a strong Vicenza club, led by returning All-Europe senior defender Felipe Diaz, will be playing last-man-standing in a battle expected to be so intense it just might shove the bigger schools’ races out of the spotlight.

"I believe AOSR, Marymount, Baumholder and Vicenza are all very talented teams in 2009 that are capable of competing for the European championships in any division in Europe," AFNORTH coach Greg Blankenship wrote in an e-mail response to a request for his assessment of the upcoming season.

"I found that the talent level at AOSR and Marymount is equal to (D-I champion) Heidelberg and (vacated D-II champion) Black Forest Academy, and thus make Europeans a wonderful and extremely challenging week for our team."

AFNORTH figures to be up to the challenge behind returning All-Europeans James Perea (13 regular-season goals), whom Blankenship believes will be playing for Sacramento State of NCAA Division I next season, and fellow senior Tobias Christmann, whom Blankenship called the best defensive player in Europe. The Lions, he reported, also return starting midfielders Brock Blankenship, a senior, and Riley Robinson, a sophomore, and will be tempered by a regular-season schedule that includes games against D-I powers Lakenheath and International School of Brussels and D-II champion SHAPE.

Those schools, Blankenship wrote, "will give our team a chance to work against very talented strikers and well-coached defensive fronts."

Baumholder, coach Jeff O’Neil said in a Wednesday telephone call, returns the "spine" of its squad in striker Alassane Doukore, an 18-goal scorer in 2008, along with all-conference midfielder Edgar Acosta and speedy center back Prince Owusu.

O’Neil believes a regular-season schedule that pits his team against two D-I schools and three in D-II will prepare his squad for a showdown against AFNORTH.

"AFNORTH is always very talented," O’Neil said. "They’re talented technically, in that they have skilled players, and they’re talented athletically, too. I liken AFNORTH to a D-I team."

Division I: Heidelberg, 12-0-0 in Perry Puppolo’s first year as head coach in 2008 and 10-time European D-I champion since 1997, returns All-Europe sophomore goalkeeper Zach Harrington, hero of the title-game-winning shootout over Ramstein last May, and his fellow All-European, play-making senior center midfielder Kevin Beerman, along with four other starters, Puppolo reported.

But for all the Lions’ gaudy streaks and numbers, they’re always closely challenged, usually by ’07 champion Lakenheath, ’05 champion Ramstein, which returns All-Europe junior forward Glenn Verley, and International School of Brussels, for which All-Europe senior midfielder Jambaar Stills is gearing up for the new season.

To kick things off properly, Heidelberg visits Ramstein on Saturday.

Division II: BFA and SHAPE usually wind up in the title game, won on the field last year by BFA, 3-2 in overtime. But the Falcons uncovered and reported an eligibility violation after the season and gave up their crown.

Bitburg, Wiesbaden and Mannheim, along with Aviano and Naples, also should contend.

Division IV: Sigonella came up a goal short last May in the Jaguars’ bid for the school’s first boys European championship, losing 1-0 to Rota in the title game. But with All-Europe junior goalkeeper Conor Quinn back to backstop their effort, the Jaguars, with six other returning starters, are poised for another run.

Rota lost All-Europe striker Kieta Silk to transfer, but transferred in, in the words of coach Tom Birch, a "gifted forward," sophomore Marcus Wolfe. Birch also likes his defense — keeper James Stovall, sweeper Scott Curtain and backs Kyle Hughes and R.J. Curley.

Alconbury, with All-Europe returnee David Blose, a senior keeper, and Brussels also figure into the race.

Regional lineups(Divisional status in parentheses)

Region IAlconbury (IV)AFNORTH (III)Brussels (IV)International School of Brussels (I)Lakenheath (I)Menwith Hill (IV)Rota (IV)SHAPE (II)

Region IIBaumholder (III)Bitburg (II)Kaiserslautern (I)Mannheim (II)Ramstein (I)Wiesbaden (II)

Region IIIAnsbach (II)Bamberg (II)Heidelberg (I)Hohenfels (III)Patch (I)Vilseck (I)Black Forest Academy (II)

Region IVAviano (II)American Overseas Sch. of Rome (III)Florence (III)Marymount (III)Milan (IV)Naples (II)Sigonella (IV)Vicenza (III)

2008 championsBoysDivision I HeidelbergDivision II SHAPEDivision III AFNORTHDivision IV Rota

GirlsDivision I ISBDivision II MannheimDivision III MarymountDivision IV Brussels

2009 tournamentsDivisions I, II, III and IV: May 20-23 at Ramstein/Kaiserslautern

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