Kids have been cooped up because of COVID-19. Youth soccer is an excuse to get outside.

Health science student Tess Willinger has been a volunteer coach with the local non-profit youth soccer program, South End Soccer, for two years. She coaches kids ages 6 and 7. Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In many ways, this season of youth soccer will be the same as any other. 

Kids will learn how to dribble the ball; to kick with their laces (not their toes); to use their feet, their knees, their heads, anything but their hands to move the ball. A game of sharks and minnows at the end of practice will continue to delight. At least one kid will prefer to pick daisies.

But in other ways, youth soccer in Boston this fall stands to be very different because of the COVID-19 pandemic—no games, no large crowds, no unmasked players or coaches. There won’t even be benchwarmers this year; dugouts and benches are closed in compliance with the city’s contact sports restrictions.

Tess Willinger, a third-year health science major at Northeastern and a volunteer coach with South End Soccer, a free youth soccer program, isn’t going to let any of these changes stop her from getting kids back out on the field.      

“We’re just trying to get kids outside,” she says. “They’ve been inside playing video games all spring and summer. Some of them haven’t touched a soccer ball in months.” 

Kids ages 5 to 13 were expected to start practice on Sept. 28. Northeastern has been a sponsor of South End Soccer for more than five years, and the team practices on Carter Field. 

Willinger, who coaches 6- and 7-year-olds, will work with kids this fall to develop their tactical skills and coach scrimmages between players on the team. Games aren’t allowed to be played against other teams. 

The team is usually a mixed bag, she says. Some kids have been playing since they could run, while others have never stepped foot on a soccer field. 

Northeastern has sponsored South End Soccer for more than five years and allows the teams to practice on Carter Field. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

“There’s this one kid who’s never played before. He doesn’t really have the skills yet, and he’s always coming late to practice, you know, one shoe on,” she says. “He’s the kind of kid who might not get played on another team.”

“But he absolutely loves soccer,” she says. “We play everyone.”  

Then there are the kids who don’t want to play, like one girl who used to beg to stay on the bench and take extra long water breaks to avoid playing. 

“She’s always doing cartwheels, that kind of thing,” Willinger says. “But during our last game of the season last year, she asked to be subbed in. It’s so rewarding to see that growth.”

Even though Willinger wants everyone to love soccer, she says that even if they don’t, at least they’re honest about it. They have no problem telling Willinger when they don’t want to play. Or that she’s short. 

“They’re always saying, ‘Are you sure you’re in college? You look like you should be in high school,’” says Willinger, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall. ‘“I’m like, ‘You’re six years old! You’re the short one!’” 

Regardless of how the rest of this season pans out, Willinger is grateful that at least kids will get to have practice and scrimmages, as much for their sake as for hers. 

“So much of the stuff I have to do right now is online,” she says. “I’m happy I have this excuse to leave the house, and no matter what, I’ll get to see these kids in person.” 

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