Now in its 37th year, the Franklin Square Raiders Soccer Club launched its spring season earlier this month. For the next seven weeks, and for nine weeks in the fall, hundreds of aspiring players will seek to master the game the rest of the world calls “football.”
On a warm, sunny morning last weekend, the under-14 travel team warmed up under the watchful eyes of Robert Gervasi, head coach and director of the club’s travel program, and its two professional coaches, John Kokkoris and Max Kimbarrow.
At first, the boys seemed to engage in random horseplay, kicking the balls back and forth, but after a few moments, patterns began to emerge. The kicks became passing drills, and the running back and forth transformed into what Kokkoris called a rondo — an elaborate sort of close-order drill in which the players wove around each other in figures as complex as ballet.
“The warm-up has three parts,” Kokkoris said. The first part was the physical warm-up, including what he called dynamic stretching. Part of its purpose was to get the players into a mental space for the game — “what we call the ‘bubble,’ the zone,” he said. The second phase consisted of positional warm-up, where players drilled on the skills they would need on the field. The rondo was part of this second phase. The third phase was the instructional warm-up, where each player was prepped by the coaches on his position and its demands, both with and without the ball. “We talk to them about the overall game plan, our strategy. Players who aren’t in the starting line-up get instructions for the two or three positions they should be ready for.”
For security purposes, every player has a photo ID that is checked before the game. It is also to ensure that players are in the correct age group, Gervasi said. “We’ve had ringers in the past, unfortunately.” His two sons, Colin, who was playing that day, and his older brother Connor both started with the club as very young children. “Connor started in the under-fours,” he said. His brother, born in 2004, followed in his footsteps. Gervasi said he never played himself, but that he always had an interest in the game.
As the players completed their warm-ups, Gervasi adjusted the video cameras. One camera followed a sensor that Colin wore on his belt. The other was on a high overhead swivel. “We post the game on YouTube so the players can watch and critique themselves,” he said.
Gervasi said injuries were infrequent, “but they’re kids. And some of them also play different sports.”
The club’s two programs — intramural and travel — have a combined enrollment of about 800 players, Gervasi said. Once formed, teams stay together, so most of the players at last week’s game had been practicing and playing together for many years.
“We had 54 kids enroll in the intramural program this year,” Raiders board member Mike Hanlon said. Like Gervasi, he never played soccer himself, although he coached other sports. But his son enrolled in the program in 2014 and his daughter a year later. “I’m one of those people who wants to be involved,” he said, “so I started helping out — nothing official, just putting out goal markers, doing little things,” he said. “Someone from the organization saw me and asked if I wanted to be on the 17-member board. I thought it was an awesome opportunity.”
The youngest players focus almost exclusively on fundamentals, Hanlon said. For older players on the intramural squads, their one-hour games are broken into two 30-minute periods. In the first period, players concentrate on skills training. In the second period, the squads are broken into two smaller teams that scrimmage with each other. At the higher levels, more emphasis is on the games, he said. The travel squads play a full season and travel as far as Virginia.
“We try to create a balance. Kids want to sit inside and play video games; this gives them an opportunity to get out and run around for an hour, let off some steam. But these are not play dates,” Hanlon emphasized. “Kids get out and meet other kids, and they learn a combination of teamwork and discipline.”
Most of the players are from Franklin Square or the surrounding communities, but some do come from further afield. The teams are coached by both volunteers, mostly parents, and professionals from Johan Juniors Soccer.
As the clock ticked steadily toward game time, players and coaches became quieter, more intense. The players clearly loved the game — everyone surveyed, coaches and players alike, answered instantly when asked about favorite teams and players. (For Colin, it was Liverpool; for Connor, it was Arsenal, although he was wearing a Bayern München jersey that day.) Equally clear, though, was the seriousness with which they prepared for the game ahead against Cold Spring Harbor, whose team was completing their own warm-ups at the other end of the pitch.
“On paper, we should have the advantage,” Gervasi said. “But that’s on paper.” The team was short three players that day, he said. One of them, Nicholas Toriello (favorite team: Barcelona), was obviously disappointed that he was sidelined by an injury from a slide tackle but was on hand to support his team. Teams play full 90-minute games with professional referees from the U.S. Football Federation.
The Raiders won, 4-3.
To register or for game information, go to http://franklinsquaresoccer.com