By CLAIRE CRUZ, Staff Writer
HARLINGEN — The rolling green soccer fields across the Rio Grande Valley are usually filled with teams and fans this time of year, but practice looks different these days.
Players of all ages are relying on virtual training sessions as the COVID-19 pandemic has paused their seasons. The RGV FC Youth Academy is putting training clips on its website for youth soccer players across the Valley to access and is holding team Zoom meetings. Arroyo Youth Soccer Club coach Jesse Villarreal is using Marco Polo, a video messaging app, so his girls can continue practicing.
“I post videos of the drills on Marco Polo, and the girls can go on and see what they need to do. A lot of our drills, you can do at home just with a ball and use some Solo cups as cones, so they’re still practicing,” Villarreal said. “It’s been very different not being out there and training. I miss the kids, and I miss the game. The spring season is our highlight, and these players love to travel and compete.”
Villarreal has been coaching youth soccer for more than 20 years with the AYSC. He had two girls teams that had just started their spring seasons, a young squad comprised of mostly 9-year-olds and an older one made up of 14-year-olds, when the coronavirus caused sports across the nation to suspend activities.
Around 100 select and recreational teams play under the AYSC banner, with athletes from Cameron, Willacy and Hidalgo counties, according to an email from board member Esmeralda Gonzalez. The club’s parent organization, South Texas Youth Soccer Association, extended its no-play period to May 15 in a statement released April 23.
Villarreal said he and his players are looking forward to the day they can safely return to their normal soccer routines. Though it’s hard to be away from the field and each other, Villarreal thinks the current situation could be beneficial in the long run.
“This could end up being a good thing, if there is any good, because the players when they come back will really appreciate the game more,” Villarreal said. “They’re ready to get back out there, and so am I. (Soccer is) my outlet from my other job. I love going out there and working with the kids.”
Luis Gutierrez said the RGV FC Youth Academy is trying to keep the routines for its players as normal as possible, considering the circumstances. Teams would typically practice twice a week for an hour and a half, so that’s the same schedule coaches are following with the online sessions.
Gutierrez, an administrator for the academy and director of the girls program, said about half of the teams in the organization are from the Lower Valley and are based at the Harlingen Soccer Complex. Around 130 girls from 5 years of age up to 18 get to work with some of the academy’s best trainers at the complex, but right now they’re missing the interactions.
“The biggest aspect of youth soccer that the players are missing is the interaction with their friends, the other players, their coaches,” Gutierrez said. “I noticed with the younger age group on the girls side, we’ll do the session and once we finish they spend 10 to 15 minutes just chatting with each other. We see that need, and we want to facilitate them to keep the players together and keep their routines.”
The academy falls under the U.S. Club Soccer organization, which has all activities suspended until May 18. There will be many regulations in place if local clubs are able to begin practicing once that date comes to ensure the safety of players and coaches.
Gutierrez and other directors at the academy are working with each other and administrators from state and national organizations to develop a plan to help soccer return. Also, the academy is considering the financial impact of the coronavirus and working to establish a way to help the families of its members going forward.
“The financial aspect, everyone’s trying to adapt because we know a lot of families have lost their jobs, so we’re trying to work out a plan for how we’re going to support travel soccer and continue to participate in the highest league,” Gutierrez said. “Just like teachers are missing their students, our coaches are dying to get back with their players. We see that the kids want to continue, they want to keep working, so we’re going to keep working to provide that.”