In the United States, soccer is still a growing sport, played by most as an introduction to team sports before moving on to other games. But for those grade school children for whom the sport has its own allure, trying out for the highest level of competition available, travel soccer, is a rite of passage.
At around 5 p.m. on a hot Tuesday in May, the Bryant School field began to fill up with 10-to-11 year old boys vying for a spot on a Lee Mount Vernon Sports Club (LMVSC) travel team. The temperature, by 5:30 that afternoon, was in the mid-90s, but felt hotter on the artificial turf. Brightly colored cones delineated the four small areas on the full-sized soccer field that were going to be used for testing.
On the sidelines, there were two large tents set up that housed a registration table and room for players to drop their gear and water bottles in relative shade. Large plastic cards were filled out with player information on one side and a large number on the other. “Please fill out the information side of the card and then pin your son’s jersey with the card," a father was told by a club official. "It helps us identify him and group him as we go through the tryout."
Coaches, most dressed in dark red T-shirts and shorts, carried clipboards and shouted orders at the players, with a cacophony of British, Spanish, and Texas accents, to organize the event. “John, Peter, Steve, and Michael, in light blues, on field number three.” The players ran to a pile of practice "pinnies" and donned the correct color before racing to the field where a coach awaited. Then the work began.
For more than 75 minutes of constant action, interrupted only for water breaks, seven coaches put the three-dozen players through their paces with a short spate of warm-up drills followed by continuous 4X4 competitions. The mini-games were designed to allow returning players and newcomers to co-mingle and for the coaches to see who had lost a step, who was still in form, and which newcomers showed early promise.
As the tryouts progressed, players were switched from team to team and position to position. Coaches took note of each boy’s athleticism, ball control, first-touch skills, decision-making on and off the ball, plays completed or erred on, goals scored or prevented, passes completed or made in error, balls recuperated from their opponents or lost to them, the constancy of each player’s movement, and the purposefulness (attitude, work ethic, and initiative) of their game.
At day’s end, evaluations were still on-going and several players were invited to return on one of the three subsequent tryout days to allow coaches another chance to evaluate them. Eventually, those making the grade will be placed on one of three teams, in ascending order of current, age-appropriate development (the white, blue, and red teams). Each boy who makes the squad will be allowed to transfer to and from each team depending upon a mix of his current skill level, the team’s needs, and his adjudged potential. For all of the participants, making the team is a badge of honor. “If I make it, I will be the only 4th grader in my school on travel—that’s pretty awesome,” said one aspirant.
The LMVSC, our area’s biggest and most established soccer club, has been in existence for more than 40 years and boasts thousands of players in their recreational and competitive divisions. Players can begin learning the sport at kindergarten age and can complete competitive playing at the high school level. Most players spend several seasons playing club soccer until other life callings intervene; others work themselves up from recreational league to travel level and become club graduates, and a few have moved on to the ranks of Major League Soccer and to U.S. National Team prominence.