Evanston’s portable soccer field puts kids on global footing to learn the game – Chicago Tribune
If this were anywhere in the world but a well-to-do American suburb, the sight wouldn’t have seemed so odd: a pack of children of varying ages and abilities playing soccer on their own without a peep of direction from coaches or parents.
Of course, this being suburbia — Evanston, specifically — this form of pickup soccer wasn’t exactly what you’d find in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
A coach and numerous parents were indeed present, though they remained mute. And the game wasn’t taking place on a patch of asphalt or a humble, unmarked field — it was happening in a $35,000 portable structure designed to encourage unstructured play.
“My kids would play (by themselves), but they could never get the quantity of people you’d need for a real game,” said Tavia Whitney, whose 12-year-old son Will was among the crowd. “They’d play in our backyard, they’d play in the neighborhood park, but it was never really a full-on game. If you have a destination everybody knows about, (children are) more likely to gravitate toward it.”
The Evanston facility, funded by a local soccer family, is an attempt to address what coaches at all levels say is a deficiency in America’s approach to the sport: Children join teams from very early ages but spend little time developing their skills on their own.
This imbalance stunts athletes’ development, some say, preventing them from developing the touch and creativity exhibited by the world’s best players.
“Self-play allows you to have a head start,” said Ken Sweda, who coaches in Naperville. “Because it’s informal, there’s a lot of modeling going on. Playing with older kids, trying to play like them, is just like trying to imitate kids on the basketball court.”
Biographies of famous soccer players almost invariably describe how their initiation to the game happened far away from a manicured pitch. Cristiano Ronaldo built his skills on the street before joining his first team; Lionel Messi and his pals played at a deserted military base; Zlatan Ibrahimovic practiced tricks in the courtyard of a Swedish housing project.
That’s not how it usually goes in American suburbs, the nation’s soccer stronghold. There, kids can join travel teams at the start of elementary school but often fail to play casually with their peers — a disparity that comes with a price, as America’s soccer establishment understands all too well.
“I believe the relationship between the player and the ball doesn’t grow during organized practices. That happens on your own,” Tab Ramos, coach of the U20 men’s national team, told Sports Illustrated in 2014.
There are exceptions. Cade Hagan, a 14-year-old from Naperville who is on the U15 national squad, said he put in countless hours playing street soccer with a family friend in Cicero.
“It helped me tremendously,” he said. “There are a lot of restrictions on players (on organized teams), with coaches saying you can’t do this or that. It really brought me a lot of creativity. I can do things other people can’t do, and that’s because of pickup.”
The benefits of this approach don’t go solely to elite athletes. Faizan Imtiaz, a psychology doctoral student at Queen’s University in Ontario, recently performed an experiment in which he and his colleagues audio- and video-recorded young recreational players during one practice led by a coach, and one the boys conducted themselves.
When the coach ran things, the players displayed more concentration and effort. But when the players were in charge, they showed more “pro-social behavior” such as compliments and high-fives, and spent more time communicating with each other.
“We found this very interesting because sport is about that, especially youth sport,” Imtiaz said. “It isn’t just about following directions. We also put them in sports so they can develop confidence and social skills and learn how to communicate.”
Street soccer still lives in some parts of Chicago. Migert Baburi, whose team at Sullivan High School on the North Side is composed entirely of immigrants and refugees, said his players come to him self-taught — a situation that has pros and cons.
“They’re great individually, they can make you say ‘Wow’ with some of the things they do, but unfortunately, that’s not how you win games,” said Baburi, whose team made it to the regional finals last year before falling to Winnetka’s North Shore Country Day School.
Sweda said the best outcome would be to introduce city kids to formal coaching when they’re young while exposing suburbanites to the street version. Evanston’s effort, he said, is a good step forward.
“The most we can hope for is to light that fire for kids and let them find the intrinsic joy in the sport,” he said.
That was evident one recent evening when about two dozen children gathered at Evanston’s Robert Crown Center for lightly supervised games inside the portable pitch. Adam Tinkham, a coach for the Team Evanston soccer club, handed out colored scrimmage vests but otherwise let the kids run the show.
The arena, placed in the grass in early June, is a 34- by 24-yard rectangle of low walls topped by netting. Manufactured by StreetStadia, an English company for whom Tinkham also serves as a sales rep, the structure kept the game moving by preventing ill-aimed passes and shots from flying away.
Evanston resident Rich Gallun, whose children play soccer, paid for the pitch, saying he wanted it to serve as an antidote to the expense and high pressure that often accompany youth sports.
“I see great value in keeping more kids — and adults — in the game at any age and level,” he said. “It’s about having fun and using sports as a way to foster character and teamwork and (to) connect people.”
One beneficiary of the free-flowing games was 7-year-old Akiva Lieberman, a tiny dervish wearing a Messi jersey. He held his own with kids up to six years older, dribbling past them as his teammates chanted “Messi! Messi!”
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said during a break. “At my age, you don’t get to play with older people. You don’t get to see what other people can do.”
Tinkham said that was the idea, noting that kids sometimes learn more from each other than they do from coaches — and sometimes just need an outlet to show what’s already inside.
“He’s fearless,” he said, watching Lieberman charge across the pitch. “How do you teach that?”