When your daughter dreams of playing in the Women’s World Cup, life as a soccer dad can get intense
Inspired by NWSL players with local roots—such as Silver Spring native Joanna Lohman, who recently retired from the Washington Spirit; Andi Sullivan, a Bethesda Soccer Club alum who’s now a Spirit midfielder; and Midge Purce and Imani Dorsey, who played at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney—young players in this area can see the college and pro dream as especially real. According to national and regional statistics, the D.C.-metro area, including Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, is considered a hotbed of girls soccer in the U.S. today.
“It’s actually much harder for boys to make it in college soccer because they just don’t have the same breadth of opportunity,” says MSYSA Executive Director Flo Egan. “If you’re a Maryland girl who really wants to keep playing soccer in college, chances are there’s a school out there somewhere for you. You and your parents just have to do the homework.”
That’s the good news. But the trends aren’t all positive. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, about 70% of young athletes quit organized sports by age 13—and soccer, with its frequent injuries (see sidebar), is no exception. Aimee broke her arm after getting tripped on the field, which hastened her exit from the sport, and Angie suffered a serious knee injury when she was 8. My wife, Katie, and I frequently wonder how much soccer is too much.
“Historically speaking, youth soccer in Montgomery County was an unbelievable engine in keeping kids involved in positive activities throughout their childhood, and through their teenage and high school years,” says Schuessler, who has seen MSI’s enrollment drop by about 3,000 players over the past decade. That drop appears traceable to a variety of factors beyond injuries. Success breeds competition, and organizations like Brit-Am Soccer Academy, Soccer Shots and the Soccer Association of Montgomery now offer clinics and youth programs for children starting as young as 18 months old. Boys and girls also have more on-field options, with lacrosse becoming increasingly popular, especially in affluent communities.
In Montgomery County, though, one of the biggest reasons for the decline of MSI recreational soccer participation appears to be the unrelenting pursuit of the same dream my daughter has. Seemingly everyone around here wants in on club soccer, also known as travel soccer, no matter the impact on the bank account or family time. According to 2015 NCAA data, 95% of women college players come from club soccer teams, which are often run by certified professional coaches and require at least two practices a week and weekend games 10 months a year, plus optional summer leagues and clinics. With all the practicing, playing and driving—typical games for teams from Montgomery County can be played anywhere from southern Pennsylvania to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with some tournaments even farther away—club soccer means 12 to 20 hours or more per week dedicated to a single pursuit. That leaves little time for other sports, family vacations and friendships outside of soccer.
“At some point, when you think you have an athlete on your hands, you take her out of recreational soccer and you put her on a club team to get her better competition, better coaching, better teammates,” Mark Cantor says. “As a parent, you can’t help but think that maybe there’s a future in soccer, maybe even a scholarship, and you want to give your kid every chance. But you better be ready for the commitment that entails.”
For me, the moment of truth came when Steve Abramson, my co-coach for our MSI recreational team of Potomac Elementary School first graders, tapped me on the shoulder after a lopsided victory at Herbert Hoover Middle School on a Saturday morning more than three years ago when my youngest child was 6. “It’s Angie’s time to go,” he said reluctantly. “Go where?” I asked. “A club team,” he said. “She’s ready.”