On a mild Tuesday evening in October, a 12-and-under soccer team from Elliott breaks from the huddle before a match. Tonight, they’re playing on a grass field at Beechview’s Alton Park.
Coach Alex Foulds paces on the sideline as the game progresses, constantly communicating instructions to players on the field. "Clear it out!" he shouts to his team. "Help him out!"
As the kids chase the ball around the field, parents and siblings watch on the sidelines. The games mean a lot to the community. "It's because there's nothing else available for them. We have no rec centers," Foulds said. "We don't have much for the kids to do at all."
In years past, Foulds’ team was part of a city-wide travel league organized by Citiparks. The city provided the referees, equipment and a field at Riverview Park in the North Side. Foulds said the league was about a half-step up in competition from the “in-house” neighborhood rec leagues, but below the very competitive and expensive club level.
The city travel league provided a nice middle ground. But, over the summer, Citiparks announced that the fall league would not be going on. When reached for comment, Citiparks said the league was called off because not enough teams had signed up.
Jennifer Wilson’s son, Justin, is on the under-12 Elliott team. She says soccer is very popular in the neighborhood and not having the league left the kids bummed.
"Even when they don't have practices or games scheduled, this group of kids gets together on their own, gets a soccer ball and goes up to the field on Herschel Street," said Wilson.
Foulds helped build a goal at another field. "You want to keep kids off the street and keep them from doing bad things," he said. "How do you do that? You give them something healthy to do."
That perspective comes from experience; growing up in Elliott, Foulds had trouble controlling his temper and he switched schools a lot.
"I was basically in a fight every month all through high school," said Foulds.
He found an outlet in sports like soccer and boxing, and they helped him get his emotions in check and make it to college. At 40 years old, he now volunteers as a coach.
After the Citiparks announcement, a group of volunteers, including Foulds, decided to step in. "Instead of the city providing the refs, the rosters and the schedule, we decided we could all do it on our own," said Foulds.
Foulds gives a lot of credit to Nicole Bobitski, who runs the soccer program at Washington Heights Athletics Association, a community organization which draws kids mostly from Mount Washington and Carrick.
"I just started looking up the teams that I knew had played the year before and contacted their presidents saying, 'Hey, I still have kids who want to play, can we make this happen?' said Bobitski.
She was able to find enough teams to put together small leagues in two age groups: U-12 and U-16. She noted that the number of teams in each league, 6 and 5 respectively, were similar to the enrollment in last fall's Citiparks league.
The new league came together so quickly that it doesn't even have a name yet. Essentially, it runs by having the home team for each game provide the resources, like referees and the field, that Citiparks had in the past. Bobitski said the league isn't quite as standardized as it's predecessor.
"Different teams have different sized fields, with different sized goals," said Bobitski, adding that the number of players on the field is usually determined by how many kids show up from each team.
Bobitski said Foulds has been all in on the new league from the start.
"He's fielded games that weren't necessary supposed to be at his field, just so the kids can play. He's found referees. He coaches the teams in both age groups," said Bobitski.
In the future, Foulds hopes the Citiparks league will be back. But if it’s not, he says the neighborhoods will keep their new league going and make it better.