Coaches for club soccer teams say they've been safely offering competition to young athletes during the pandemic.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Players with Hillsboro Soccer Club prepare for a scrimmage at 53rd Avenue Community Park in Hillsboro on Dec. 3.Alexis Rodriguez Peña says playing soccer competitively again with his friends this fall was game-changing.

"It was great. Getting back out onto the field, there's nothing better than that," said Peña, a member of Hillsboro Soccer Club's team for 16-year-olds, which had finished a scrimmage against the club's team for 15-year-olds at 53rd Avenue Community Park minutes earlier on Dec. 3.

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports during the peak of the club's spring season this year, lifelong players went months without playing and lost a primary source of social connection.

Although state officials postponed all school sports this fall, Gov. Kate Brown modified restrictions for certain outdoor sports, including soccer, allowing club teams throughout the region to restart practices and even play games this fall.

Club officials and coaches say they recognize the importance of safety guidelines as cases of COVID-19 are at their highest levels, but they add that the return to play for clubs has been crucial to the physical, mental and social well-being of young players.

"Having something where they can come out, socialize, be a part of something, being able to have a physical outlet and not be inside the entire day staring at screens, it has made a big difference," said Mike Wall, assistant director of coaches for Hillsboro Soccer Club. "The kids are happier."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Michele Barber, president of Hillsboro Soccer Club.Michele Barber, president of Hillsboro Soccer Club, said when state guidelines changed over the summer, allowing the club's teams to restart limited practices, it was a big adjustment.

Teams had to break up into "pods" with no more than 10 players, who could only do drills at least six feet away from other players with balls that only be used by one player.

"A lot of people were saying it was an opportunity to introduce technical pieces that have been missing, but it wasn't what the kids who were in lockdown were hoping for," Barber said.

Oscar Monteblanco, director of coaches for the club, said, "You can only do ball drills for so long."

When state guidelines changed again in mid-September allowing certain sports considered "minimal and medium-contact" such as soccer to restart competitions, Hillsboro Soccer Club worked quickly to come up with a plan to have a fall season, Barber said.

"Everybody is using the saying, 'You're building the plane as you're flying it,'" she said.

The club submitted a more than 30-page plan to Hillsboro Parks & Recreation to show that players, parents, coaches and referees could abide by guidelines adequately to play games at 53rd Avenue Community Park's turf fields.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mike Wall, left, assistant director of coaches for Hillsboro Soccer Club, and Oscar Monteblanco, director of coaches, at 53rd Avenue Community Park during a scrimmage Dec. 3.Hillsboro Soccer Club hosted a fall season at the park with other clubs around the region through the Oregon Youth Soccer Association. The fall season recently concluded after having about 60 games.

It allowed clubs such as FC Portland to compete after the club struggled for weeks to find fields to reliably use, said Jason Carney, director of coaching at FC Portland. The club's typical practice fields at Liberty High School were closed, Carney said.

Clubs across the region have found it difficult to find open fields, even though state guidelines allow them to play, he said.

Carney says some safety guidelines for games have been challenging for players and coaches to adapt to. People must be wearing masks constantly, players can't head the ball or throw it in from out-of-bounds, and high-fives are off-limits, for example.

Players also have to complete health and symptom checks before practices and games. Hillsboro Soccer Club is using an app to allow players to complete the health checks online.

But Carney agrees it's all necessary.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nicholas Lernon, 15, makes a save during a Hillsboro Soccer Club scrimmage at 53rd Avenue Community Park in Hillsboro on Dec. 3."I was uncomfortable starting," Carney said about the risk of being infected with COVID-19. "I was not one who was like, 'Oh, this is nonsense, let's just play.' I was really uncomfortable."

Josue Dolores Lopez, who played in the Hillsboro Soccer Club scrimmage on Dec. 3, said he was also worried about returning to play.

"I was thinking about my grandparents," he said, adding that he has tried to reduce his risk of infection in all other aspects of his life.

Last week, new coronavirus restrictions went into effect statewide, including a tiered risk classification for counties.

Even with all Portland metro-area counties in the "extreme risk" category, outdoor sports such as soccer will be able to continue, as long as events are limited to 50 people.

Indoor sports such as volleyball, however, are prohibited from playing at all in the extreme risk category.

Steve Suttich, co-director of Beaverton-based Oregon Juniors Volleyball Academy, said after being able to hold limited practices over the summer and a four-player per team competition this fall, it's frustrating to not be able to play under the latest rubric.

"Kids and parents were emailing me basically saying this is the highlight of their week," Suttich said.

He added, "We think that all the measures we put into effect were helping be the solution. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Since June, five Hillsboro Soccer Club players out of about 700 who play consistently have either tested positive or came into contact with someone who tested positive, Wall said.

For some families, the risk of contracting the virus was too great to allow their kids to return to play, Carney said.

Officials at both Hillsboro Soccer Club and FC Portland say registrations are lower than recent previous years. Carney says FC Portland has been down about 100 players out of about 800 across the club's teams.

Some players haven't been able to return because a parent lost a job or experienced pay cuts due to the pandemic, Carney said.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Players with Hillsboro Soccer Club wear masks during a scrimmage at 53rd Avenue Community Park on Dec. 3.Club soccer has been widely criticized for being too expensive to be accessible to lower-income players.

Officials at both FC Portland and Hillsboro Soccer Club say they've been looking for ways to expand scholarship opportunities, lower prices and offer less-expensive opportunities for players.

"We believe that no player should step away from the game solely because of finances," reads Hillsboro Soccer Club's website, where it shows several fees that have recently been reduced for year-round programs. One program for 8-year-olds has been made free while others for older groups still range from $960 to $1,220.

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