Keeping athletes in the game.

Pick Up Soccer Alive and Well in Vienna, VA

I remember how excited I was as a kid when our team got to play the night game under the lights. Those big light standards hummed in the night sky, focusing all their energy on us, the stars of the show. It actually made it hard to see anyone in the stands, which probably was good because I muffed my fair share of ground balls.

But the kids in Vienna don’t worry about muffing it; they get to play under the lights every Friday night with no pressure at all. Just fun.

Friday night pick-up soccer was kicked off two years ago by Eddie Lima, then the new technical director for the Vienna Youth Soccer club. He wanted to give all the kids in the club the opportunity to just come out and play for fun. He reserves the fields at Luther Jackson Middle school every Friday night from 6 to 8 p.m., sets out cones and pinnies, switches on the lights and the kids come running.

There’s no charge to play; they just need to be registered with Vienna Youth Soccer.

Kathy Milligan, mom of an Under-12 player, says, “It’s a ritual in our family that we attend these games. Ashley’s passion is soccer, so what’s better than combining that with friends?  She also loves meeting new friends and playing with them.  It gives her new experiences and she feels she learns something every time she goes.

“I see her watching certain soccer moves and trying them out. Best of all,” Kathy adds, “I notice the smile on her face.”

What parent doesn’t love that?

Apparently there are a lot of families like the Milligans. Come to the middle school on a Friday night and you may not find parking. And watch out for groups of brightly clad kids sprinting across the dark parking lot racing for the field. The scene that greets them is astounding: 10 small fields with kids everywhere, balls everywhere and everything in motion. Not a referee in sight. Kids simply check in with the adult in charge, then off they go, joining a game already in progress.

“Friday night pick-up has been a great thing for VYS,” writes Bob Amani, a U-9 boys coach. “ For the kids (boys and girls together) it’s a chance to unwind after a long week of school.”

Amani acknowledges the need for structured practices during the week to fit time constraints, but thinks this gives the unstructured play of Friday nights a special attraction. Friday night teams are made up of whomever shows up that week, so it’s always new. And apparently, it’s not just the kids who are inspired.

Bob says, “many of the parents also get involved before they pick up by [trying to] turn back the clock and try a few moves of their own.”

How great is that?

VYS logo

The adult volunteers, Lima says, are there to assure safety and fair play, but they don’t coach. The game is completely run by the kids. Fields are designated by age and gender, but there are no hard and fast divisions. Apparently mixing the ability levels isn’t a problem. The house kids tend to play down an age group and the travel kids often choose to challenge themselves by playing up an age group, Lima says.

It’s their choice; The kids themselves decide where they want to play on a given night. No pressure. No expectations.

“It truly represents the philosophy of Vienna Youth Soccer,” says U-10 boys and girls coach Aravind Jagannathan, or Jag for short. “Come when you can and stay as long as you can is the motto; it’s all about the kids.”

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Jag remembers playing sports as a kid with friends at a park, on the street or anywhere just for the enjoyment of playing and trying to improve.

“Pick-up,” he says, “tries to recreate this atmosphere in our modern day society. As a parent I want my kids to enjoy and develop their own individuality and confidence in any sport.”

And 100-120 oblige every week, according to Coach Lima. The fields are wall-to-wall kids, with games sharing sidelines and kids running in and out retrieving balls. Kids may come and go as they please, but mostly they come and come. No one is turned away. Everybody plays. If it gets too crowded on a field the kids work it out. They ask if they can make three teams and alternate with each goal scored. If the coach approves, they’re off and running.

I find these numbers and this energy particularly amazing on Friday night, at the end of a long week at school for these kids and a long week at work for these adults. But it shows no sign of slacking. In fact, Coach Lima says, when he arrives at 5:45 to start setting up, kids are already there waiting. Some kids come from their team practice straight to pick up games; they can’t get enough soccer.

What an anomaly this is in our day and age of organized sports. No winners. No losers. No designated teams — and MORE kids come. That success has been their only problem. VYS has had to limit pick up nights to the U-9 to U-13 age groups. They would like to expand to include U-7 and U-8s, but they just don’t have the space.

What a good problem to have. So many of us complain about the long lost “good old days,” but how many of us are doing something about it? In Vienna, they are.

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But wait, there’s more. The adults are so smitten with the evening activity, VYS is thinking about having a fitness program for  those who stay while their kids play. Kathy Milligan is enthusiastic. “I’m in for that,” she says. “What a great example we would be setting for the kids if we are exercising while they play. A win-win.”

That’s for sure. Sounds like they’re getting Friday nights done right under the lights in Vienna, Va. Lotsa kids, no coaching, all fun. So where’s the spotlight? Not on the leadership at VYS; they’d rather stand in the shadows and let the kids play. Now there’s a standard worth shedding some light on.