The coronavirus pandemic has put the sports world at a standstill across the country, forcing athletes of all ages to become innovative with their training methods, while not being able to practice or train together.

But the pandemic isn’t preventing players from the RGV FC Toros Youth Academy from virtually linking up with coaches and teammates through Zoom, a video-conferencing platform, and practicing in the confines of their own home.

Rafael “Rafita” Soto, a 9-year-old goalkeeper who plays his club soccer with the RGV FC Toros Youth Academy, is glad he, his teammates and coaches are still able to see each other through a computer screen, but he still misses in-person practices and game days.

Rafael “Rafita” Soto poses in his game day uniform in front of the H-E-B Park, the home of the RGV FC Toros. The nine-year-old Soto is a goalkeeper with the RGV FC Toros Youth Academy. – Courtesy Photo

“It’s been really good, but it’s been a little hard. It’s like working together, but separately,” Rafita said of the virtual practice sessions.

The cancellation of RGV FC Toros Youth Academy’s games came in the middle of its season. This caused Rafita and his parents to get creative.

Rafita’s parents, Rafael and Mary Soto, helped recreate a practice-like atmosphere by transforming their home’s garage into a makeshift training facility, lined with artificial turf and goalkeeping equipment.

For the past month and a half, Soto has been training in his garage, running through drills with his parents, and joining in on virtual training sessions with his head coach Rafael Longoria and Ben Willis, a goalie for the RGV FC Toros, the Valley’s professional soccer team that competes in the United Soccer League as an affiliate of the Houston Dynamo.

It’s a team-effort as Rafita’s parents find training videos and run their 9-year-old son through them in their new makeshift training facility/garage.

“The way we’ve been handling it is to always be creative with his goalkeeping training. What we’ve done, not having a sports facility or soccer field, we converted our garage into a soccer goalkeeping center with equipment and turf,” Rafael Soto said.

Rafita’s father and coaches find training videos, and his mother runs through the drills with him. Both Rafael and Mary played soccer while in high school, so they enjoy seeing their son staying dedicated to the same game they grew up playing while dealing with a unique situation.

“With the training with Rafita, I’ve gotten to see how passionate he is about soccer, and it motivates me to train him more,” said Mary, Rafita’s mother.

A normal week for Rafita and his RGV FC Toros teammates included three team practices spread across seven days.

Now, Rafita dives around his garage to stop balls, keeping his goaltending skills fine-tuned.

Nine-year-old Rafael “Rafita” Soto practices goalkeeping skills in a makeshift training facility set up by his parents in their home garage. The coronavirus pandemic has forced youth soccer players like Soto to be creative with virtual practicing methods while not being able to practice in-person. – Courtesy Photo

Rafita’s favorite teams to watch are the Tigres and the USA Men’s National Soccer team, and his favorite players include goalkeepers like Jorge Campos, Guzman Nahuel, and currently one of the game’s best overall players, Christiano Ronaldo.

But Rafita, a fourth-grader at Seguin Elementary in McAllen, can’t wait to get back on the soccer field to make some highlight reel plays of his own with the RGV Toros Youth Academy.

“I’m very excited to go back. I’ve been missing my teammates, missing my coaches, missing the games,” Rafita said.

Rafael and Mary want parents of other youth athletes to know what’s being done is in the best interest of everybody’s safety, and when parents can return to watching their kids play soccer, or whatever sport it may be, it’ll be all the more enjoyable to see.

“Stay strong. We’ll be going back to the field soon. For now, stay home and practice. It’s not worth being out there and exposing your child to the risk. Training, we miss it, but we’ll be back on the field soon,” Rafael Soto said.

bramos@themonitor.com