Youth soccer clubs optimistic about 2021
It took some heavy lifting, but for Ryan Youngblood, finding a way for youth soccer players to return to the field was worth it.
"We're very thankful we can be outside and have players doing what they love," said Youngblood, executive director of United PDX, a Portland-based club that in a normal year serves approximately 3,000 players ages 5 to 19.
Adjustments to Oregon Health Authority guidelines in August and September led to the opportunity for players of high school age to play about a half-dozen fall league games. Those players are playing a short winter season this month and hope to represent their high schools on the field next month.
"All things considered, (fall) was a very successful season," said Keegan Rogers, a coach and the marketing director for Gresham-based Eastside Timbers. That club fielded about 20 competitive teams, at least two per age group, during the fall.
Because of field scarcity — with public schools closed those fields are off-limits — teams in the under-11 to under-14 age groups were limited to training sessions and in-club scrimmages in the fall and winter. But a six-game spring season for those teams is expected to begin in late January or early February.
Youngblood put together the COVID-19 protocol for United PDX. He studied recommendations from the Oregon Youth Soccer Association, the Oregon Health Authority and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To limit the risk of spreading illness, some rules were changed and players, coaches and officials were required to wear masks. Throw-ins were banned during the fall season, so players kicked the ball back into play. Slide tackles were prohibited. Games were shortened by 10 minutes and each half included a water break.
In the greater Portland area, spectators were not allowed at matches. Each team could have one person take video of play for a livestream or later viewing.
Players seeking the opportunity to play soccer in college missed out on the opportunity to travel to major showcase tournaments around the country, so video was their best chance to be seen by college coaches.
Rogers said Eastside Timbers tried to accommodate college coaches who requested access to games by allowing them to watch from an unused field.
Some of the soccer rules restrictions are expected to ease with the start of spring seasons. Masks will remain mandatory, but headers and slide tackles will be allowed, for example. Spectator access will continue to be determined by each county's phase of reopening.
Youth soccer clubs also had to develop off-field logistics to allow for matches to be played. Examples include limiting restroom access and keeping parents and spectators away from the field and making sure that players spread out when not in the game. Parents often watch from vehicles or through online tools such as Facebook Live.
With parks and public school facilities off-limits, and with former base Concordia University closed, United PDX has used fields at three private schools — Portland Christian, Oregon Episcopal School and Westside Christian.
Roberta Cloutier, executive director of the Oregon Youth Soccer Association, said about 25,000 players participated in youth soccer in the state in 2020. That's less than half the usual 54,000, ages 5 to 19, who play recreation or competitive soccer in Oregon.
Cloutier is optimistic the numbers will rebound once schools reopen and recreation programs return. Plans are underway for a spring recreation season and for the annual state cup championship tournaments to take place this spring.
One measure of the thirst for soccer, or any activity, was the popularity of the winter academy at Eastside Timbers in Gresham. The six-week series of Monday small-group training sessions had more 180 players participate according to Rogers. That was about 30 more participants than in 2019, Rogers said.
Brandon McNeil, the technical director for United PDX, said his club has seen some families that traditionally play recreation soccer join more competitive programs in search of an outlet for children missing PE or any other physical activity.
"It's honestly been a lifesaver for a lot of kids," McNeil said, noting that getting out of the house and away from devices and online classes has more than physical benefits. "It's a game-changer for kids to be able to pursue the sport they love."
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