YAKIMA, Wash. -- For years, the Sun City Strikers took pride in their ability to go toe-to-toe with other elite-level soccer programs around the state.

In recent years, however, the Strikers’ status has slipped, due to multiple factors, and the once-strong program found itself on shaky ground facing an uncertain future.

“The Strikers had been in a difficult spot for a couple of years,” said Chad Bodnar, a former Yakima Reds player who is currently director of coaching for the Three Rivers Soccer Club in the Tri-Cities. “It was hard to pinpoint. Numbers had been down. Sometimes things just don’t go the right way.”

As a result, the Strikers slide put them dangerously close to falling out of Washington Youth Soccer’s Regional Club League, which attracts the state’s top soccer players ages 11 to 18.

That was something many youth soccer supporters here in Yakima didn’t want to see happen.

One of those was Antone Gutierrez, a member of the Yakima Youth Soccer Association and former Reds teammate of Bodnar. So Gutierrez called his friend to see what could be done to save the Strikers and the two began talking about a merger between the clubs. Those discussions came to fruition in early May, with the announcement of a three-year agreement putting the Strikers under the umbrella of Three Rivers, with the new club called Three Rivers Yakima Soccer Club.

“We all wanted to keep the highest of level of play (in the state) in Yakima,” Gutierrez said. “Without this merger ... our RCL play would have, quite frankly, ceased.”

“Ultimately, it’s the right decision,” said Scott Filkins, president of the YYSA, which operated the Strikers program.

Having taken the first step by recognizing the challenges, both sides in this merger have now turned their efforts to rectifying those weaknesses, starting with the most glaring problem — reversing the player drain on the program.

In their heyday, the Strikers had roughly two dozen teams. With now roughly 20 other clubs in this region “competing for the same piece of the pie,” Filkins said, it was increasingly difficult to maintain those numbers and the program had slipped to nine teams this season, not nearly enough to remain competitive with other state clubs nor meet RCL standards.

“It was a strong club,” Three Rivers Yakima director of coaching Ray Evans said of the Strikers. “Nobody wants to see a club kind of crumble, for whatever reason. We’re trying to set things right and develop what we’ve got here.”

Naming Evans director of coaching was an important first step. The former player and longtime coach gives Yakima immediate credibility with the RCL because he holds a United States Soccer Federation National Class B coaching license.

The RCL requires clubs to have at least one coach with a Class A license, the highest level for coaches in the USSF, or one with a Class B provided that coach is working toward an A license. The Strikers’ top coach had a Class C license, so the arrival of Evans via the merger satisfies the RCL’s requirements for now, buying the Three Rivers Yakima program time to develop other coaches capable of meeting RCL standards.

(According to the USSF website, www.ussoccer.com, beyond gaining more technical knowledge about the sport, the primary differences in the licences is what age of players someone can coach. C licenses are for coaching players ages 11 to 14, B licenses for ages 16 to college level, and A licenses for older junior level and senior level players.)

As for increasing the player pool, Bodnar has several plans, starting with reaching out to other groups, such as Hispanic leagues, and communities in the Lower Valley. That effort has already paid off with three teams from Hispanic leagues joining since the merger, he said.

There will also be more emphasis on attracting younger players and rebuilding the recreational leagues.

“If you don’t take care of the roots, the tree won’t grow,” Evans said. “To grow the club, we’re looking to develop the younger players; get them into a little more competitive environment.”

Filkins said the merger will allow YYSA to put more emphasis on the recreational end because “we have a capable group (Three Rivers) taking care of the competitive program. We’ll be able to work more on training coaches and getting more kids into the recreational program, which we haven’t been able to do as much of in recent years.”

For players, merging forces will allow for more opportunities in the Yakima program to join other Three Rivers clubs for what Bodnar called showcase tournaments played in front of college coaches and recruiters.

Long term, both Bodnar and Filkins said the new organization will continue working toward developing an outdoor soccer facility — Filkins pointed to the Starfire complex in Tukwilla as a model — as well as building an indoor facility.

“We do need an indoor facility to help make our high-level soccer teams competitive against the westside teams,” Filkins said, adding that YYSA can’t use the current indoor facility in Yakima because it has a contract with the Central Washington Soccer Academy. “We’re basically shut down in the winter, which puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

While the challenges ahead are many, Bodnar seems to be the right person to tackle the job. He understands what the Strikers were going through having helped rebuild Three Rivers after it lost its RCL certification for two years.

“We had to build the program from the ground up and now we’re one of the top 10 to 15 (RCL) clubs in the state,” he said, adding that he’s confident that a similar turnaround can happen in the Yakima Valley.

“It’s a perfect fit but it’s something that has to be proven,” he said. “Definitely people shied away at the start because it was new. In the next year, when we show what they can get out of this program, it’ll grow. Once people see we’re here and in it for the long haul, we’ll get those kids into the program.”

And they have already started to make their case, moving relatively quickly to establish not only quick fixes but long-term plans to rebuild the once-proud program.

“We have some challenges but we’ll get through this,” Filkins said. “Chad will give us direction on how to weather this.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to the glory days, but we’ll be much better than we’ve been in recent years.”