Grassroots Soccer: The Bottom Line is Fun

By Carolyn Schuk
Grassroots Soccer: The Bottom Line is Fun

It’s a sunny September Saturday and Santa Clara Unified School District’s Curtis Field is full of the happy sound of kids playing soccer, and there’s a cheerful disorder about it all. Families are camped out on the sidelines with tents, beach umbrellas, folding chairs and coolers and cheering the little players on.

It’s the first game of the fall season for the Green Ninjas and the Pikachus, who are scrambling around the field in every direction like, well, the six-to-eight-year-olds they are.

The teams are affiliated with the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League (SCYSL) but the group at Curtis Field inhabits a universe lightyears away from the political faction of the SCYSL that has aggressively dug itself into City Hall politics.

Most of these kids have never played at the partisans’ cause celebre, the Northside Soccer Park. Some parents were unaware there was a soccer park next to Levi’s Stadium. Regardless, no one seemed to be in a hurry to fight traffic to play there, especially when it’s a short drive or walk to Curtis Field and all their friends are here.

The Curtis Field soccer community has been going for over 30 years, according to longtime Santa Clara resident Kevin Madej, who was a professional soccer player briefly in his youth and former president of the SCYSL early in the league’s history. Madej’s children played at Curtis and he still comes out on Saturdays, now to watch his grandchildren play.

Kids being together, playing outdoors and the community that springs up around those games is what youth soccer is all about, says Madej; not the pressure cooker of select teams, competitive leagues, distant tournaments every weekend, and intensive coaching sessions, clinics and camps—and the concomitant costs for all this.

Neighborhood recreational soccer, like the Saturday games at Curtis Field (owned by the school district), account for about 80 percent of kids soccer in the U.S. Most of the kids playing at Curtis have never played anywhere else.

“It’s not about competition, it’s about camaraderie, among parents as well as kids,” said Brent Cannatelli of San José, whose seven-year-old is playing on the Pikachu team this afternoon. Cannatelli, who works from home, values the opportunity to get together with other team parents.

“I have zero clue what’s happening [on the field],” he said with a laugh, “but he appears to be having a good time. It’s a good time, relaxed. The next Pele probably isn’t coming from here.”

Christine Custodio of San José echoes Cannatelli. Her son, six, has been playing at Curtis for three years. “His classmates enjoy playing together. He has the opportunity to play with his friends and it’s nice to talk to parents outside daily drop-offs at school.”

Michelle Vu and Tuan Nguyen of Santa Clara live within walking distance—less than a mile—of Curtis. But that’s not the only reason their kids play at Curtis Field.

Their two boys, seven and eight, play on the Green Ninja team.

“We saw that the coaching wasn’t as aggressive [as other teams],” said Nguyen. The coaches “weren’t as focused on the game as camaraderie among the kids, not so focused on competitiveness. We want him to be able to see his friends outside school. It’s more social.”

Jennifer Villanueva of Sunnyvale played soccer at Curtis Field as a child. Now her seven-year-old son, plays here on the Green Ninja team.

“I brought my son over here because they have a great program” Villanueva said. “They have excellent coaches.”

Off the field, the group is very friendly, said Villanueva. “And there’s lots of communication. They understand the needs of parents as well as the child. They take everybody’s input, for example, about scheduling. They’re very accommodating.”

“Very family-oriented,” added Villanueva’s mother, Kathy.

Villanueva hopes to see her son advance to competitive club soccer. “I want him in that,” she said with the caveat, “but not if he won’t experience any playing time. With competitive teams you’re not guaranteed play.” What’s important is that her son is playing and having fun.

After a few hours of rough and tumble—it’s not clear who won, but no one seems to care—the Ninjas and Pikachus and their families are packing up coolers, tents and folding chairs, the goals were being locked up and everybody was heading home, smiling and relaxed.