During the second half of yesterday’s USA vs. Brazil match, I realized that Ronaldinho’s goal-creating corner kick came from the zone in which one of the STL United FC ballkids was stationed. I walked along the sideline, past dozens of hysterically cheering Brazilian fans, and asked Melvin (a.k.a. the self-styled Melvindinho) if he’d thrown Ronaldinho the ball. He had. I asked him what that was like.
“I asked him for his autograph.”
Pause. “You what?”
“I asked him for his autograph.”
“What did he say?”
Melvindinho mimicked the Brazil number 10, putting his hands out to the side with an “I don’t know” expression. He then added, “I think he said, ‘maybe later’ in Spanish.”
“Well, uh, good job Mel,” I said, completely perplexed by the last 30-seconds of my life. “Good for you.” (And we did talk about the difference between Spanish and Portuguese later. But that could wait.)
While that story was a particular keeper, moments like that were coming all day yesterday, as one of the STL United FC’s youth team parents (DJ Wilson) and I drove four kids to the Soldier Field match, with three of them joining a group of 41 kids who were put to work in the game. (The fourth watched the game from some great, lower bowl seats; still a treat.) The youngest 22 were escorts, who walked onto the field with the starters of each nation, standing in front of the crowd of 43,453 and a nationwide TV audience. The other, older 19 were ballkids, scattered along the end- and sidelines; they, too, were on the field at the start of the game, holding the flags of the US, Brazil and FIFA.
The interesting thing about kids is something that maybe shouldn’t surprise me, anymore. Most of the players were Scott Gallagher-affiliated, although some were not. Arriving at the field a good two-and-a-half hours in advance of the kickoff, I noticed that my players (Thomas, 14, Dashawn, 12, and Melvin, 9) were chatting up kids that they’d played with or against over the last spring and summer, some of them having met only once, or twice. But there they were, chatting away and immediately easing my worries that the three would form a clique and not talk to others involved. Sometimes, I’m not sure why I even worry, in the first place.
After spending the last few months spending too much time, really, thinking about the paradigms of American youth soccer (the urban vs. suburban models, the club approach vs. open play experiences, etc., etc.), I was struck by the fact that kids, when thrown into a soccer setting, tend to sort things out fairly quickly. That’s not to gloss over conversations that should be held about these topics of inclusion and opportunity. But when given a fun, structured environment in which to interact, kids from different backgrounds can get it together. Bravo, lads.
Clad in matching green-and-white Gallagher gear, the kids went through a variety of experiences, before, during and after the game.
In a still-empty Soldier Field, they practiced their flag maneuvers. Then, they retired to the locker room of the NFL down-and-distance-chains crew to change out and hydrate. When warm-ups began, they filed to their positions on the field, tracking down the odd ball, sure, but mostly, watching the teams train. The flag ceremony was held, then they sprinted to their positions along the dasher boards. Two halves of great, entertaining soccer were played, with the internationals playing within yards of them on multiple occasions. Kids threw balls to US and Brazilian stars and heard the chants and catcalls of the crowd, who were, at times, literally close enough to spray them (okay, just Melvindinho) with silly string. After the match, they ran through the same tunnel as the teams and waited along a rail, where Brazilians like Gilberto Silva and Vagner Love signed their shorts, shirts, boots and arms.
On the way back to town, the four kids in the vehicle were talking about soccer for four hours, before, finally, turning to ghost stories.
If they’re still talking the about yesterday’s game in a few years and are still energized by the potential for the sport, then whatever investment was made in yesterday’s trip will have been seriously proven worthwhile. I’d suggest that that’s the case, already. So thanks to the people who made yesterday click. It was much appreciated, by kids and adults alike, trust me.