June 22, 2005 - When the news reached Josh Gifford, the Marana High School soccer player couldn't have been more ecstatic. His lifelong dream had just come one step closer to reality.

A diehard fan of the Charlton Athletic Football Club of the English Premier League, Gifford is among the top players for the Canyon Del Oro soccer club, which recently merged with the British soccer institute in a landmark marriage.

"I was totally excited," said Gifford, who will be a junior at Marana in the fall, "because I knew I'd have a chance to go over there and show my skills and see how far I can get."

When CDO club soccer joined Charlton as an affiliate of the English Premier League, it became the first club organization in the United States to do so.

CDO club soccer will gain from its new partner all the luxuries afforded the main club, including topnotch coaching and scouting.

"It may take a couple of years and it may grow slowly," said CDO-Charlton director Steve Wallace, "but it will grow, especially as other sites in the U.S. become a part of this."

Gifford's love affair with Charlton soccer can be traced back to when he was just 5 years old. Although he's never traveled across the pond to Charlton, southeast of London, Gifford's family hails from various parts of England. His mother is from nearby Bolton.

To keep up with his favorite franchise, Gifford has invested in a soccer satellite package that provides about three Premier League games a weekend. But the goal for Gifford isn't to sit around and watch his heroes slug it out on the pitch. He aspires to be among those selected to one day don the red uniform of Charlton Athletic.

"They're looking to develop young players," said Gifford, "to where they can find even just one out of one hundred to go over and showcase their skills in the premier league."

That could happen sooner than later. Charlton will offer a select number of CDO club soccer players the opportunity to travel to England and attend school and the soccer academy in a student exchange-like program that would send English players to Tucson.

Although he's scored just three goals in his entire Marana career, Gifford has shown a knack for finding the back of the net, which he did 24 times while playing for CDO club soccer last season. He tied for tops in his age division with Ironwood Ridge High School's Ryan Ridlinghafer, a close friend of his.

Gifford has been with CDO club soccer on and off for five years.

For the Marana junior, the difference between soccer overseas and in the United States is like night and day.

"It's not even close to being what Europeans build," said Gifford. "The skill level in Europe and the coaching they have is so much better than what you can ever find out here, so far."

With the merger between CDO club soccer and Charlton, Gifford and the coaches are hopeful the margin in skill level between the two nations can be narrowed.

That's not likely to happen in Marana anytime soon, however, Gifford said.

"This isn't a team that you would see going anywhere," Gifford said about Marana's team, "because we just don't have the coaching ability and we don't have all the select kids that you would get out in the city."

Gifford, a striker by trade, was forced to play multiple positions for the Tigers last season, which severely cut down his offensive productivity.

With the right amount of effort and determination, CDO club soccer is hopeful that Charlton can create a bridge between the two nations.

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