NEXT STEP: Paul Johnson, right, and Chad Bridges are all smiles in a recent shot. Johnson, a former Hun School and University of Virginia soccer star, has teamed up with Bridges to run the Next Level Soccer Academy (NLSA). With NLSA thriving, now including seven teams and approximately 150 players, the organization is looking to take the next step and build a year-round facility to serve as its headquarters and a training center for local athletes.
Paul Johnson knows the value of combining soccer with academics.
In the late 1990s, Johnson put together a legendary high school soccer career for the Hun School, earning All-American and All-State honors and playing with the U.S. U-17 and U-19 programs.
Utilizing his soccer prowess and Hun education, Johnson went on to the University of Virginia where he became a starter and a key performer for the school’s 2003 ACC championship squad.
Returning to the Princeton area after graduation, Johnson formed FC Trenton United club in 2007 to instill values of soccer, education, and community service.
Two years later, Johnson teamed up with longtime friend Chad Bridges, merging his operation into Bridges’ Next Level Soccer Academy (NLSA).
For Johnson, becoming involved with Bridges and NLSA was a natural step.
“Chad wholeheartedly goes after it and he wants the best for the kids,” said Johnson, who coaches the Pennington School boys’ soccer team with Bridges, the school’s Dean of Students.
“He tends to be an extension of me, sharing my values and my goals. I kind of shut down what we were doing and pulled it over to him. He does a lot of community outreach and we decided to join forces.”
With NLSA thriving, now including seven teams and approximately 150 players, the organization is looking to take the next step and build a year-round facility to serve as its headquarters and a training center for local athletes.
“From the beginning I knew there was a need for a facility in the Mercer County area,” said Johnson, who is the NLSA Director of Training and Player Development while Bridges serves as the executive director of the organization.
“We saw the need, whether it was for under privileged kids or those that were privileged. They clearly have nowhere to train year round so stuff was being lost.”
As a high school star, Johnson saw how a year-round facility can aid development.
“I had the good fortune to go to IMG, now the Bollettieri Sports Academy, when I was with the national team during my high school career,” said Johnson, referring to the famed training facility for athletic, academic, and personal development in Bradenton, Fla.
“I kind of wanted to replicate that up here. It gives the kids an opportunity to stay off the streets and gives them an outlet to further their careers. We know the percentage of high school athletes that get to go and play in college and get scholarships is less than 4 percent. It is really minimal so every minute and every training session means something.”
Noting that the proposed structure will be modeled after the Philadelphia Eagles Nova Care training center featuring a bubble covered by steel and fabric, Johnson said it will be a multi-purpose facility.
“It will be 350,000 square feet with soccer fields, basketball courts, and pyramid seating so you’ll be able to sit on both sides and watch,” said Johnson.
“It is going to have a full gym and a training room where you will be able to do rehab. It will also have a classroom for tutoring, homework, and SAT preparation. We are not saying that we are only soccer. There will be soccer lines on the fields but we are also open to lacrosse, field hockey, and flag football. We are open to the community for rentals as well.”
In order to jump start fundraising for the project, NLSA is holding its Banquet/Gala on May 19 at Dave and Busters near the Franklin Mills Mall.
“It is called ‘Goals to Gold,’ the ‘goals’ is an acronym for giving objectives to achieve leadership skills,” said Johnson, referring to the function which is open to the public with tickets costing $125 for adults and guests 18 and over and further information available on the organization’s website at www.nextlevelsoccer.net.
The NLSA is also launching another fundraising initiative, “10 Million People Who Care,” in which it is seeking donations of $1 or more from millions of donors.
“We realized at the end of the day that so many people say they care and want to help,” explained Johnson, noting that the club is looking to get the word out through social and mainstream media.
“We decided we could raise money from all of those people. We are looking for 10 million people to donate a dollar essentially. The actual funding is a little more. We figure once we get there; we can bridge it with a bank.”
Johnson sees the NLSA as a bridge between sports and the community.
“At the end of the day you have to sell a product that is going to help the kids and have the kids in mind,” said Johnson, noting that NLSA has been giving back to the community through working at soup kitchens, donating balls to Haiti, doing food and clothing drives and holding a Trenton World Cup day where the organization provided soccer instruction and T-shirts.
“We see a need in the area; we are hoping that people will buy into it and want to donate to us. The kids need to have good facilities.”
Making that vision a reality can help kids achieve their dreams. “We want to grow the game as well as grow the kids in the area; our goal is to do it the right way,” added Johnson, who pointed out that the NLSA will be hosting camps this summer and will be running the Turning Wheels College Showcase Camp from July 8-11 at the Golden Goal Soccer Complex near Lake George in New York.
“We want to help as many kids in the future that we can; hopefully the sooner the better. We have been told it is going to be hard and how are we going to raise this money. There have got to be people in this world that care; we trust the human heart.”