Families lined up at Veterans Stadium on Harrison, Saturday, to watch their favorite soccer players kick and dribble their teams into victory. The familiar sight of red and white jerseys, little orange cones, soccer nets and soccer parents in lawn chairs along the fences has become a Saturday morning staple since the synthetic turf was put in nearly two decades ago.
Just as the 3- and 4-year-old Little Kickers made their way off the field, the 8-year-old and under Division 1 stepped onto the turf. The full-length soccer field was divided into three separate mini fields to create a pitch of many games, played simultaneously.
“This season we have six teams [in Division 1], which is the most participation we have had in a long time, even before COVID came about in 2020,” explains Forest Park Youth Soccer Association President Mike Hill, who took the reigns just over 10 years ago and credits the strength of the program to the parents and volunteers who are always stepping in whenever there’s a need. He also cites the Code of Conduct created in his early days as soccer leader.
“I love the kids,” Hill explains. “I grew up with youth sports and wanted to give back,” which has brought his many returns to the field. Hill went on to point out that the teenage referees overseeing each game on the field were once kids themselves playing in Division 1. “We’ve gone full circle and now our older soccer players give back to referee for the younger games.”
The Forest Park Youth Soccer Association provides a semi-competitive environment in an 8-week season. Divisions are separated by age: Division 1 for children 8 and under, Division 2 for children 10 and under, Division 3 for children 12 and under, and a varsity team of 14 and under athletes. The varsity this year, with a roster of 15 players, faces off against other local soccer programs, including North Riverside, Riverside, Elmwood Park, and St. Giles and Ascension schools in Oak Park.
The coaches are all volunteers, including Cristina Arredono, who remembers playing Forest Park Youth Soccer when she was a tike and returned to the fields as a coach when her son and niece started playing. She especially appreciates the lessons of “teamwork, confidence in self, and competition” that she gets to teach the next generation.
One of the most enthusiastic coaches on the field is Barry Cooper, who didn’t know anything about soccer when his son first joined. A lively spectator-turned-coach, he continued to coach even after leaving Forest Park and as his son moved to other divisions.
“When we moved to Clarendon Hills,” he said, “my son, who was not into sports, wanted to stay a part of Forest Park Soccer. So when we moved, we didn’t leave the Forest Park soccer field.”
His coaching philosophy focuses on growing skills, understanding fundamentals, and working with others. “We work on drills and skills at practice. Before each game the team and I agree on what we are going to do,” Coach Cooper explains, “and usually the highlight is getting into our lineup and high-fiving all the parents. Sometimes we do it two times.”
The robust return of Forest Park Youth Soccer after the COVID years is reflected in the nearly 150 participants this year, including children from neighboring communities who have joined the program.
Every family agrees to the code of conduct when they participate, which states basic responsibilities every child, coach, parent, and others follow, including being generous when you win, graceful when you lose, being fair, working for the good of the team, and conducting yourself with honor and dignity.