For all the old-school sports columnists who have made hay writing regular columns about how the U.S. will never embrace the global game of soccer, last summer’s World Cup was a wake-up call.
The 2014 Argentina-Germany final was the most-watched soccer game in American history, drawing in more than 26 million viewers — more than the 2014 NBA Finals, Stanley Cup or World Series, and all without any American representation.
On a more local scale, it appears that more Litchfield residents are getting into “the beautiful game.”
On Oct. 7, Litchfield Community Education kicked off its first co-ed recreational soccer program on Tuesday nights at Wagner Elementary, using smaller nets and a bit heavier ball inside the elementary school gym.
According to the community education website, as of Nov. 4, there were 19 individuals registered for the program, which will continue to meet through May and costs $25 for an individual and $35 for a couple.
Litchfield resident Manny Jasso, 27, was instrumental in setting up the league, which he thought would keep he and his friends’ soccer skills fresh through the cold and wet winter months.
“I thought it’d be nice if we could set up something for the winter here,” Jasso said. “I talked to (community education adult programs coordinator) Angela (Smith), and she was receptive and we’re trying to get people to join indoor soccer — it’s not a league, it’s an open gym kind of thing. I’m hoping there’s enough interest.”
Jasso stressed that prospective participants do not need to be stellar soccer players or have any fancy equipment — just a willingness to play.
“All you need to do pretty much is pay the fee and show up and get a good workout,” Jasso said.
Expanding Litch’s soccer community
The idea for playing through the winter came to Jasso after his summer soccer team, Pumas Litchfield, finished its season in Willmar’s competitive 16-team soccer league — the first year of the Litchfield-based team and perhaps a sign of soccer’s burgeoning growth in Litchfield.
“Willmar is a very large soccer community,” Jasso said. “I haven’t seen too much interest in the Litchfield area, but I think now with more of the Hispanic population residing in Litchfield it’s picking up a little bit more.”
Jasso and his family moved to Litchfield from El Paso, Texas in 1998; from 2000 to 2010, Litchfield’s Latino population increased by 44 percent, from 5.15 percent of the town’s population to 7.24 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
Jasso’s motivation to try and get an indoor soccer program up-and-running stemmed from more than just a desire to get people working out or for he and his friends to play more soccer: the 2005 Litchfield High School graduate would like to see interest in soccer spread across town.
“I want Litchfield to become a more soccer-interested community,” Jasso said. “I have a son now (Gabriel, 11 months) and one of my goals is for him to play soccer when he gets older and at Litchfield that’s kind of hard right now.
“I’ve contemplated if once he’s in middle school age or high school age, if Litchfield doesn’t offer soccer, I’d think about putting him in Hutch or somewhere like that,” Jasso said.
Young Gabriel will have a place to play soccer once he’s turned 4: community education’s “Kickin’ Dragon Soccer,” which runs from early May through June, is aimed at kids from the age of 4 until fifth or sixth grade.
This past summer, community education had 58 participants in the youth program, including Noah Patten, 5, son of Mike Patten, a Litchfield chiropractor and 2001 Litchfield High School graduate.
“It’s important to get those kids out and running and exercising and soccer is an easy way to do it,” Patten said.
Patten also played youth soccer through community education, and he remembers that at a certain age there ceased to be options in Litchfield for kids who wanted to continue playing the sport: neither community education nor the Litchfield school district offers soccer for middle school or high school students.
“It was fifth grade about that it just stopped,” Patten said. “There are no other classes, no other teams to play on: I don’t think it was from a lack of interest — I just think it was from a lack of not having any other teams to play on. … We just played basketball and forgot about it.”
Martin Elwell has coached youth soccer through community education the past three years, and he has seen the difficulty the kids he’s coached have with continuing their soccer careers.
“Based on who I have and who I’ve seen in our program, I’d certainly say that as kids start to get into the sports that are directly tied to school, that’s probably where the disconnect happens because there isn’t a school (soccer) program,” Elwell said.
In Elwell’s opinion, if Litchfield’s soccer infrastructure extended to middle school and high school, it could both increase youth soccer participation and retention.
“(My opinion) is a little bit isolated to the soccer perspective, but I really think that if there was an endgame, if there was a place for kids to end up … you’d certainly see the benefits on both ends,” Elwell said. “… I’d love to see something at the club level or something at the middle school or high school level.”
Could the Litchfield school district support soccer?
Over the years, long-time Litchfield activities director Mike Sundin has heard from students wanting to play soccer, but never a loud enough clamor to warrant starting a full-blown program at the middle school and high school.
The school sends out an online survey every few years, “and we just have a handful of kids who would want soccer,” Sundin said. “The survey shows that there isn’t enough seven-through-12 support to have that many people play soccer.”
Sundin pointed to the school’s existing slate of fall sports — football, volleyball, boys and girls cross country, girls swimming and girls tennis — and wondered where the roughly 60 extra boys and girls to field junior varsity and varsity soccer teams would come from.
“We’ve struggled to be competitive with having another activity — I don’t think we could support it,” he said. “Having said that, I understand that there’s a segment of our population that would love to play soccer.”
But, with roughly 169 high school students already signed up for an existing fall sport in a school of 516 students, some of those 60 new soccer players would be sapping talent and numbers from other programs, many of which already face a size disadvantage among the formidable schools of the Wright County Conference.
“It’s a numbers’ game, it really is,” Sundin said. “Football’s a numbers’ game, soccer’s a numbers’ game — every big team sport is a numbers’ game.”
Sundin has also looked into cooperating with other area schools for soccer — as Litchfield does with Dassel-Cokato in hockey, for example — and has even reached out to Hutchinson and Glencoe-Silver Lake, to no avail.
“Every once in awhile we have maybe one or two students who ask if we can co-op with somebody,” Sundin said. “And I’ve checked into that, and the people that are the most logical, like Hutchinson, are not interested.”
As the winter season approaches and Sundin sets up schedules for boys and girls basketball, wrestling, dance, boys and girls hockey, gymnastics and boys swimming, he’s proud of the school’s depth of sports offerings.
“We offer a lot — we really do,” Sundin said.
If he could make the numbers work, Sundin said he’d be happy to offer soccer.
“I would offer any sport I could offer for kids, because I want kids to participate — that’s what I really want,” Sundin said. “I want to be able to have kids out for something; if it attracted a whole passel of kids to do it, we’d have to look at it.”
And perhaps the catalyst for a groundswell of public support for middle school and high school soccer programs could come from expanded community education efforts.
Litchfield Community Education youth programs coordinator Amanda Marquardt said that she is hoping to expand next year’s spring youth soccer program to include students of middle school and high school age, provided she can find an experienced and competent coach to lead it.
“It’s one thing Litchfield doesn’t have,” Marquardt said. “It would be great because I think there is an interest out there.”