WESLEY CHAPEL — America is one of the few countries where organized soccer is played by kids as young as the age of 6, but at Wesley Chapel District Park, the Wesley Chapel Flames took a more European approach this spring.
By eliminating practices and coaches that drill home tactics and basics, Spring League organizer Joel Palmer was able to offer a hybrid version of street and organized soccer for kids ages 6 to 12.
Getting the right people on board was crucial.
"We hand-picked all the coaches for this," Palmer said. "We didn't want people that were going to be yelling and screaming. Even if they weren't going to be the best soccer minds, it was more important that they be good with the kids. We were looking for a less structured league. One without standings or scores, where the only thing that matters is that the kids are playing."
Taking away the drills and team building exercises of a practice means that game time is the only time kids spend learning how to play soccer. Flames coaching director Robert Bogus compared it to the way soccer is played in the streets of other countries.
"It's the purest form of soccer," Bogus said. "You look around and you don't see enough of it in the clubs. You only see it in the inner cities, but these kids need to feel comfortable just playing. They learn how to be creative that way."
It didn't take much to make the league happen: A few signs spread around the park and a mass e-mail sent to the 3,500 members of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association, and Palmer had so many enrollees that he had to turn some kids away.
The Spring League had about 140 players this year. The cost was $65 for registered players, $80 for those not registered with WCAA.
"What's crazy is that we have 24 kids out here that didn't play soccer during the regular soccer season," Palmer said. "The thing is that all the sports now are pretty much going year-round. Years back it had a very rigid schedule for what sports happened in what season, but now you've got kids playing soccer in the spring that play baseball in the fall. We have the capacity to do 300 kids in a spring league, so next year we may try to market it a bit differently, too."
The idea of keeping the games competitive became a priority of the league's organizers toward the end of the season. If one team was up by three goals, the other could add a player. If one team seemed to be killing everyone, coaches didn't shy away from breaking them up and making them play against each other. The competitive balance is one aspect Palmer is looking to improve for next season.
"I think we learned a lot this year," Palmer said. "We threw this thing together very last minute so we weren't always sure of what we were doing. I think next year we have to learn how to maintain a better balance. … We have to figure out how to fulfill the need for the sense of competition while keeping the free flow concept intact."
For parents, the freedom their child is allowed in a league like this is more fun to watch as their child develops new skill sets.
"Our daughter started playing goalkeeper and she loves it," Toni Thomas said. "They learn more hands on when they're playing in a game all of the time. You can drill all you want but you have to apply what they tell you in a game anyway. I think the kids are really getting a lot out of it."
Palmer is happy with the way the first season went and has been able to use it as a tool for identifying new players.
"From a club perspective it's really served the purpose of finding talented kids that we didn't have before," Palmer said. "You'll see other recreational or even competitive coaches out here watching and talking to parents. It's been good in that respect, too."