Kids everywhere get their kicks on the field Story by Brad Spencer, Photos by Jill NortonJill Norton/Jill Norton Photography Emma Dillon, 6, and Aidan Dillon, 4, both of Skokie, warm up for Emma's first season on the field.
Decked out in his sparkling soccer apparel-black cleats, matching knee-high socks that hold in place trusty shin guards, gold-and-white-trimmed shorts and shirt-Emanuel Rodriguez darts past defenders, dribbling, as they say, toward a net where another boy holds a concentrated stance. Rodriguez feints left, quickly rights himself, cocks back a flimsy leg and swiftly boots the ball toward the net. Parents on the sideline take one long unified breath and hold it, following the route of the ball as it spins along the grass between the goalkeeper and the goalpost. Shouts of jubilance erupt for the scorer and his team of four other 8-year-olds, all of whom have been churning up this miniature field near Montrose Harbor in Chicago during the 10th Annual Mayor's Cup Youth SoccerFest.
The festival, put on by the Mayor's Office and the Chicago Park District each July, is supposed to get kids interested in soccer, but the effort may be unnecessary. The sport has already exploded with kids. In the last decade, the park district itself has seen soccer grow 100 percent. The Illinois Youth Soccer Organization-with 65 percent of its recreational and competitive league programs in the Chicago area-reports a record 70,000 kids participated in the sport last year.
But as the sport's numbers grow, so has the structure and the competition. There are more traveling teams springing up, more leagues and more hard-core programs for kids as young as 6. To some, it seems soccer is moving beyond the nice park games that were part of its original appeal to parents.
It's got appeal Soccer has caught on because it is easy, accessible, fun and year- round. Parents also perceive it as one of the more safe and less intense sports. It can be taken up without a large investment in pads, equipment or passes. And it develops diverse skills that spill over to other sports.
"It's the only sport that young children can jump right into and feel a part of," says Sunny Agboola, 47, who has played and coached in several youth soccer leagues in the Chicago area. "So many sports require certain or specific skills that most young kids can't develop very quickly. Get a ball, find a field, grab a few other players, and you can begin developing soccer skills immediately. There's nothing to it.
"When kids reach the age of, say, 10 or so, then it's time to begin instructing them on how to better develop their own personal abilities. But until that time, the sport can be used to allow very young kids an opportunity at organized fun," Agboola says.
The boom in interest-apparent in the myriad of specialized traveling teams, community clubs and organizations around the country-can be traced to the rise in popularity of such professional stars as U.S. Olympian Mia Hamm; British star David Beckham, who inspired the title to the popular soccer film, Bend It Like Beckham, and 13-year-old phenom Freddie Adu, who competes in the under 17 group of the U.S. Men's National Team.
But soccer's draw may be simpler.
Unlike baseball, soccer requires constant motion. Running and kicking are the sport's benchmarks, two actions young kids can't seem to get enough of. It's a sport where physical size, strength or gender don't account for a player's performance. Factor in cheap equipment and soccer fits the mold of a healthy and easily accessible recreation for kids.
Agboola, whose daughter began playing soccer at the age of 6, claims soccer can do more than just give kids time to blow off steam. "It builds confidence in young children, instills the value of teamwork and even develops personalities," he says. "If you look at girls who play soccer or have played soccer for quite some time, they are mostly outgoing and aggressive."
The fact that soccer offers a somewhat safe and harmless arena in which to release abundant energy seems to be the main reason parents are signing up their young children. Don and Michelle Voigel of Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood got daughter Elizabeth playing when she was 5.
"Adapting to it and enjoying the game only took a matter of seconds," says Voigel, a former recreational player. "You come to appreciate how the sport can tire [the kids] out, not to mention it lacks the possibility of serious injury. There's an occasional bump and fall, with tears, but it's usually one of those things that is shaken off immediately. It's a product of their age; a 5-year-old can't kick a ball very hard, so it's not going to hurt if it hits another 5-year-old."
Voigel says he and his wife, who is an assistant coach, take turns enforcing the "no-bunching rule" on the young kids. "There will be about nine or 10 5-year-olds just piled around the ball in the middle of the field, in something that resembles a rugby scrum, and you have to kind of break them up," he says. "As they get older, they come to find it's easier to advance the ball by passing."
Keep it friendly The Chicago Park District, like so many in the six-county area, has programs for kids as young as 4, where the emphasis is placed solely on safety and recreation, not competition.
"We don't keep score until the kids reach age 7, an age when they are starting to understand the game, its positions and its techniques," says Michelle Connolly, marketing coordinator for Chicago Park District's north region. "At such a young age we're only concerned with introducing the kids to the game and helping them apply motor skills."
The park district relies heavily on volunteer coaches, such as Maureen Sreenan, who helps with her 4-year-old son's team. Sreenan says the concept of kicking the ball in the right direction took a few days but the sport allows her son some special time away from Mom and Dad.
"Everyone plays and nothing is taken too seriously at that age," she says. "There are no practices, no real strategies discussed. They are just out there having a good time, running around and enjoying something that they think Mom and Dad aren't in control of. That's usually the key to their enjoyment."
Sreenan likes the relaxed atmosphere the park district promotes. The games are two 15-minute halves where the clock runs continuously and every kid plays. For Sreenan's 9-year-old daughter's team, things are a little different. "The 9-year-olds can be quite competitive," she says, "but we try not to make that a primary focus."
Northsider Lisa Curci, a stay-at-home mom, also has been a volunteer coach for her son Joseph's 5-and-under team for the past two years. The onset of each season is usually focused on keeping the kids' ever wondering attention, Curci says. But, by the time the program is complete, most players have developed a special fondness for the sport. "When we first started out, even Joseph was more content with sitting on the cooler and waiting for the Gatorade," she says. "As time went on, they really started getting into it and looked forward to the games. We've got a little plot of grass behind our house and Joseph and his sister are always out there with the net and the soccer ball."
Curci says her daughter, Sarah, 8, did so well playing in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) that she was "recruited"-or asked-to play for Lakefront Soccer, a more advanced and more expensive organization. The club, which travels as far away as Rockford, costs $950, significantly more than AYSO's $ 75 registration fee. The cost of playing on a Chicago park team is $40-$100.
The traveling soccer squads are becoming ubiquitous to the Chicago area. If you are not yet at that level of sport with your child, a traveling squad means more-more time, more training and more pressure.
For some, this is what their children want-the next level. But parents should understand what's involved.
"I'm leery of the change in programs because, from a chauffeur's perspective, it will be challenging for her as well as for me," says Curci, who is moving Joseph to AYSO for more competition. "We just have to make sure neither one of us becomes overwhelmed."
The next level The Chicago Fire, a professional soccer team that plays in Naperville, has 24 satellites in its youth program. The clubs are mainly for children 9 and up and are played year-round indoors and out. They are an alternative for parents who feel their kid need an organized and efficiently staffed system.
Greg Vogler, president of the Downers Grove Roadrunners Soccer Club, which allows some of its older teams to travel out of state for tournaments, says demand has prompted these clubs to develop.
"More and more parents see soccer as a stepping stone to participating in other athletics for their child. The game involves a lot of running and forces kids to condition and discipline themselves to play at a high rate of activity," he says. "For us, whether they stay in soccer isn't all that important. Developing confidence, teamwork and coordination is, and that's what soccer does."
"Young kids are developing faster nowadays and the skill level isn't where it used to be," says Chuck Race, co-founder and current board member of the River Forest Rapids, which spun off from AYSO 13 years ago. "You have to raise the bar, so to speak, in your program to accommodate that increase in development."
The Rapids, which charge $600-plus, have recently turned over all coaching duties to paid and certified personnel, something Race says parents welcomed. "We took the (parent) politics away to a large extent, a concept several clubs have adopted over the years," he says. "In a lot of sports, a kid gets involved because of parents; we just felt that letting professional coaches select the players and run the games, it provides a measure of independence to the process. We don't discourage parent involvement. If someone wants to assist a head coach, he or she can attend an eight- to 18-hour licensing course. Parents can also be a team manager that coordinates schedules and meetings. This helps free up the coach and gives him adequate time to focus on coaching."
Both Race and Vogler agree kids 6 and under aren't ready for the rigors of a traveling team. "From a developmental standpoint, I feel it imposes too much of a challenge on the kids at that age," says Race. "They wouldn't get a chance to enjoy the game."
Vogler insists a parent's patience can lead to a kid's long-term commitment in the sport. "Many times a parent's expectations don't match that of their kid's ability or desire to compete. If a parent eases the child into the sport and watches from a distance, the development can progress quicker and better," he says. "A kid has to enjoy playing soccer in order to get the most out of it."
Rodriguez seems to enjoy the sport. Huffing after scoring his goal, he explains why: "Because it's fun," he pauses and looks up, "and all kids are good at it."
Resources Chicago Park District (312) 742-PLAY.
AYSO (847) 290-1577
Illinois Youth Soccer (847) 290-1577
U.S. Soccer Federation www.ussoccer.com
U.S. Youth Soccer Association www.usysa.org
Check your local park district
Brad Spencer is the father of 10-month-old twin daughters, Sports Editor of the Wednesday Journal and a writer based in Oak Park.