Opinion: Let’s Keep Soccer Fun For All In Belmont

Photo: Belmont High School Girls’ Soccer.

By: Adriaan Lanni

As a Belmont soccer mom and former college player, I am incredibly proud of the U.S. World Cup team, which stands up for equality off the field and plays the game beautifully on it. But the inspiration of the Women’s World Cup obscures a troubling trend in American youth soccer—one that has a particularly strong impact on affluent towns like ours.

There is an arms race to produce future World Cup stars that filters down throughout the system. When I drive by Belmont High School over the summer, I often see private coaches leading young kids in one-on-one workouts. My family is not immune; we pay $3,000 a year for my 12 year-old daughter to play on a club soccer team. In a sport which relies on the slow acquisition of uncanny foot skills, club soccer has come to feel nearly obligatory for kids aiming at their high school varsity team. State and national rankings are available for club teams starting with the under-11s. And this competitiveness is tied, inevitably, to anxiety about college admissions. The surest path to a college scholarship is offered by “development academy” teams, which are so serious that players are not allowed to play for their high school (i.e., with their friends). 

This pressure might be OK for kids who have a shot at playing at the very highest levels.  But it’s terrible for everyone else. Regular participation of 6 to 12-year-olds in the U.S. dropped 14 percent between 2016 and 2018, as kids who can’t afford or don’t want to join the arms race quit. Even the club soccer “success” stories come at a price. I played in the Olympic Development Program and was recruited to play college soccer, the Holy Grail for many club soccer parents today.  But the game had begun to seem like a job, and I quit my college team after two seasons.  And this was when the soccer arms race was in its infancy before it sucked in players unlikely to advance in the sport. 

Watching my daughter today, I worry that many kids are missing out on the game’s real greatness.  Soccer is one of the few sports that people of all ages play on a casual, “pick-up” basis.  It is also a game that, unlike basketball or softball, typically requires intricate teamwork to produce even a single goal.  And because a good goal is like a little work of art that we create with other people, there is nothing I know of that brings people together so quickly.  You can see this in what Megan Rapinoe called the “explosion of joy” that often accompanies a goal—and not just in the World Cup.  I met my husband playing soccer, and I have joined pickup games all over the world with complete strangers.  In a world of careful, cultivated relationships, the impromptu fellowship of casual soccer is a wonderful thing. 

Without all the external pressures, and now well into middle age, I have rediscovered my love for soccer. The Boston area has outdoor and indoor leagues for women of all ages and skill levels (if you want to play let me know: I’ll gladly help you find a team or a regular pickup group). This month, Lancaster hosted the Soccerfest, a national tournament with women’s divisions ranging from over-30 to over-70 (!); teams travel from as far as Texas and Hawaii.  I am as excited to play with my over-40 team of local moms as I have been about any soccer game.  Recently I was playing in a pickup game in Lexington, mostly with women of a certain age.  My teammate had the ball on the sideline, and I ran (some might say lumbered) toward her, calling for the ball.  But I had an intuition that another teammate, Jeri, would sprint into the space I left vacant.  I let the ball pass between my legs and Jeri was there, unmarked; she hammered the ball into the goal.  It made our day.  My daughter now often plays pickup with us precisely because of this joy and camaraderie, which often seems absent from competitive youth club games.  

A few years ago, the Belmont Soccer Association started an in-town small-sided coed league for fifth through eighth graders. Affectionately called the “Rogue League,” it’s an organized version of the coed, multi-age, wide-range-of-skill-level pickup games that my brother and I grew up playing at our local park alongside club soccer. My daughter played in the Rogue League this spring and loved it. I highly recommend it.  

Like many others, I am willing to part with shocking amounts of time and money to support my daughter’s desire to become a better player.  But what I ultimately want for her has nothing to do with playing at an elite level.  I want her playing pickup in 20 years, savvy enough to make that run that Jeri made—and to feel that same “explosion of joy” that Rapinoe and all the rest of us feel when you play the Beautiful Game right.

Adriaan Lanni lives on Watson Road.

Temporary Field Lights Proposed For Winn Brook, PQ Grounds Heads To Select Board

Photo: (foreground) Charlie Conway, president of Belmont Youth Soccer, at a community meeting on field lights at Winn Brook playground.

After a pair of bruising meetings with skeptical neighbors on Wednesday night, July 24, the Belmont Recreation Commission unanimously approved allowing Belmont Youth Soccer to install temporary field lights at Winn Brook Elementary School and Pequossette (PQ) Field for approximately 10 weeks this fall.

The set of four lights will illuminate a 80 yard by 80-yard area for up to two hours until 8:30 p.m. beginning on the first week of September and lasting until early November as part of a pilot program.

“We will bring this [decision to allow lights until 8:30 p.m. weekdays] to the Select Board with the commission’s approval,” said Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator and Recreation Department director.

The commission did place conditions on the proposed permit that echoed resident’s major concerns by prohibiting diesel-generated lights which neighbors to the field considered too noisy and a potential source of air pollution.

In addition, the commission will suggest the Select Board begin a discussion that would lead to the lights being rotated to other play spaces, Town Field and Grove Street Playground, allowing fields to rest and regenerate the grass playing surfaces.

The lights request by Belmont Youth Soccer is an unintended consequence of the new Belmont Middle and High School, said Charlie Conroy, BYS president, who made the presentation to the committee and public at the Beech Street Center on Wednesday, July 24.

Recreation Commission Chair Anthony Ferrante with member Marsha Semuels responding to residents concerns.

With the school’s long-standing practice fields ripped up as the land is being prepared for construction, high school athletic teams will train on town fields and playgrounds (field hockey will be at Winn Brook, Girls’ Soccer at Grove Street and Boys’ Soccer at PQ) from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., dislodging the youth league which has 1,500 players between kindergarten and eighth grade.

The four lights will allow teams of older players, about 40 in 7th and 8th grade, to practice well after dusk. “We will not light up the whole field just a specific part” of the playgrounds,” said Conway.

In addition, said Conway, Youth Soccer is also renting a field at Belmont Day School for $25,000 to supplement the playgrounds already being used this fall.

At both meetings, held consecutively, residents immediately pointed to the impact of diesel-powered lights on the quality of life of the neighborhood.

The fumes from the engines will prevent nearby residents from opening their windows “and that is completely unacceptable,” said Sherman Street’s Linda Matthews, who also pointed to the likelihood of light pollution from their use.

Conway said there are alternatives to diesel generated power sources including solar and electrical. But unlike the diesel machines which can be rented, the alternatives have to be purchased.

“And what we need from the town is a five year commitment to this plan for us to make this investment,” said Conway.

As much as the fumes, residents protested the diesel lights adding “another audio assault,” in the Winn Brook area, said Joanne Adduci of Hoitt Road. “Our chances to sit outside will be gone,” she said from the loud hum of the running motors.

Attendees at both sessions pointed to possible additional traffic, the noise of kids playing past nightfall and the location of the lights along abutters – at PQ it totaled 45 houses and 90 families – homes rather than closer to the center of the grounds.

Rose O’Neil, a Precinct 4 town meeting member from Maple Street adjacent to PQ, said as a member of the Friends of PQ Park, when the playground at the park was being developed this year, lighting was prohibited to prevent constant use.

“There has to be time for the residents … who are not part of league,” said O’Neil, seeking to preserve the park as “a communal place.”

“I love that feel,” she said.

While Conway and members of the commission attempted to reassure the residents that their concerns were being listened to, some in attendance didn’t have the same faith in the responses.

“With all due respect, is this a done deal? Do we get a fair shake,” said a resident.

After the end of the night’s meetings, the commission moved to approve the permit with the conditions against diesel use.