Soccer players get younger as the game gets more US popularity
You would think I know about soccer. My dad coached high school soccer for almost three decades. When I was the coach’s daughter, I went to nearly every practice, every game. The guys on the team were like my brothers. A crush on one of the players, I knew, would go nowhere when you are the coach’s daughter, for fear of dating the coach’s daughter.
I watched my dad’s frustration when, the first year or so in the early 1980’s, the Tottenville Pirates, struggled to find players to come out for the team. The first year, they didn’t win a single game. Then, as I sat on the bleachers on a grey fall afternoon, I watched a triumphant team lift my dad into the air on their shoulders after the team’s very first win. Years later, the Totenville Pirates clinched the city title several times over.
Fast forward to the present: Today, there are approximately 17.5 million kids who play soccer, according to U.S. Soccer. I was never one of those kids. My brother was. When he was very little, he would go straight from a game in his St. Charles uniform straight to Hebrew school. Later, he played, though I think begrudgingly, for my dad’s team in high school.
I’m an adult and I am still happy to be on the sidelines, sometimes with a book, sometimes screaming and jumping when my daughter’s team nears the goal post. I am very grateful for the parents who get out there and coach.
In my town, Brighton, soccer seems to be the new religion. I remember one summer, when my youngest was around six, the family took and after dinner stroll around the neighborhood, looking for people to chat with. No one could be found. Why? Everyone was on a field, in a folding chair, watching their kid play soccer. We never made that mistake again and signed our kids up for soccer every succeeding summer.
At a quick glance, the fields in Buckland Town Park in Brighton on Tuesday and Thursday evenings appear as if they have been invaded by a colony of little green Martians. But if you adjust your eyes, you will see that this is no alien colony but the future of soccer. For the first time, hundreds of the town’s six and seven year olds are all on the same neon-green team and are learning to dribble, pass and score in Brighton Soccer League’s new program called the Small-Sided Games Initiative.
Cities across the country – and now Brighton – are implementing small-sided soccer as a new trend that affords the youngest soccer players “more opportunities to have contact with the ball and gain confidence in the sport,” according to Mike Tullio, a member of the Brighton Soccer League board who facilitates the E, F and Pee Wee divisions. Dedicated volunteer coaches switch off with random groups of ten children each night with 30 minutes of drilling and dribbling and learning how to control the ball, and then 30 minutes of scrimmage play with half the “team” wearing blue aprons.
Is this new method working? Mike said that like anything new, it is too early to tell, and it is a bit of an adjustment. There are a few drawbacks from a coach’s perspective, he said, such as the inability to work with one set group of kids for the entire season.
Brighton resident and volunteer coach Barbara Egenhofer agrees. “At this age, they are really starting to understand the game, and I need to get to know where a kid’s strengths are – be it offense or defense. For younger children, the new setup may be good for straight skill development, but the older kids really want to wear those separate team colors and have a greater desire to play a real game,” she said.
Either way, the smiles on the kids’ faces as they run the width of the field – and score a goal into tiny nets — are proof that they are having a good time. The only drawback for kids – no organized team means no organized snack at the end of practice.