New to Soccer?

First of all, I think it’s time to stop pretending that Americans don’t play soccer. Data from the Census Bureau show that in 2009, more than 13.5 million Americans played soccer. By comparison, only 11.5 million played baseball, and less than 9 million played tackle football. More people in this country played soccer than tennis or volleyball too.

IMG_0883I don’t really mean to get too hung up on numbers, but, again, Americans (meaning specifically those from the USA) do play soccer. In fact, we even watch soccer, with the English Premier League becoming particularly popular (now averaging over 500,000 U.S. viewers per match on NBC networks).

The problem for now, I suppose, is that we still aren’t all that successful at soccer (or football, but this isn’t the time for a verbiage debate) at the top levels (in fairness, I really mean men’s soccer here, since the U.S. women’s team has already experienced considerable success on a global stage!). There are undoubtedly many factors that contribute to our lagging men’s soccer prowess. One may be that we have many relatively enticing alternatives (in sports and otherwise) that other countries don’t have. But that doesn’t mean the USA doesn’t want to be good at soccer. To be sure, it’s clear that many soccer associations at various levels are focused on improving the overall level of U.S. soccer talent.

So, I think, here’s where we come in. Sure, we’re going to let our kids play soccer. Even those of us (like me) who barely played ourselves. But how do we approach a sport that we may not prioritize or at least don’t have as much experience with?

Based on my experience, let’s start with the basics:

  1. Buy soccer ball.
  2. Give ball to young athlete.
  3. Encourage athlete to use feet to move soccer ball around.
  4. Repeat 3.
  5. In lieu of or in addition to 4, enroll athlete in (relatively) non-competitive soccer program that will facilitate 3.
  6. Watch soccer, on tv or (better) in person.
  7. Encourage athlete to participate in 6, especially with you.
  8. Evaluate whether athlete seems to enjoy the above.

If you get through this process and your child still wants to play soccer, then you have many potential options open to improve their skill.

There are plenty of soccer clubs in Western New York (especially in Erie County) that will enable a child (over the age of 3, at least) to play soccer on a year-round basis (if desired). And that’s even before you get into “travel” and similar teams that require tryouts and serious financial investment.

My children (under the age of 8), for example, have taken soccer “classes” through our town’s recreation department and played on organized teams in each of the spring/summer, fall, and winter seasons. Now, to do so, we have bounced around among various clubs, because they don’t all offer sessions in all of the seasons. At the “house” level there is, as far as I know, no reason not to move back and forth from league to league (assuming you and your child already want to spend that much time on soccer).

Most of the clubs have both the standard “house” league and travel teams. Whereas travel teams were relatively unusual/limited when I was young, they have seemingly become the norm for youth athletes with a moderate level of skill and passion to compete. The Buffalo & Western New York Junior Soccer League is the primary starting point for travel soccer in this area. Through this league, children ranging from age 8 to 19 can participate on a club team that travels around the Buffalo metropolitan area to play other (more or less) similarly skilled clubs. Even if your child isn’t ready to play travel soccer, this league’s website identifies many of the most established soccer clubs in the area. So, if you haven’t already found a place (or the right place) for your budding soccer star to play, I’d suggest you start here.

For now, I’m not going to try to identify all of your soccer options in Western New York. But, for those looking ahead or ready to move to the next level, there is also a Thruway Soccer League. As the name suggests, this league is organized to foster competition between and among soccer clubs (including some based in/near Buffalo) from across a wider geographic footprint in Upstate New York. Consistent with the commitment necessary to undertake the greater travel burden, this league generally features a higher level of competition than that found in the more localized leagues.

Well, don’t just stand around, hit the pitch! (Yes, that’s meant as a soccer term.)

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