Sports

SHIRA SPRINGER | FAIR PLAY

A gap in the youth soccer system

With her long, braided ponytail, Catherine Santos looks like all of her soccer teammates. Then she threads a pass through two defenders with perfect timing and touch. The move is far from flashy, but it separates Santos from the other 10- and 11-year-olds on the field and demonstrates a natural feel for the game. She comes from a soccer-loving Brazilian family, and it shows in her play.

“Soccer is the only thing that got my attention because I saw everybody do it — my brother and his friends — and I watched it a lot,” said Santos, whose family has traveled to see Brazil’s national teams compete. “I hope I can play in college.”

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Three times each week, Santos makes the round trip from Malden to Newton or West Roxbury for games and practices with the Valeo Futbol Club. She is among the lucky ones. She gets to pursue her soccer dreams at the club level with support from her parents and older brother.

But for many young girls from immigrant families, that’s not the case, especially when they come from Central and South American countries where soccer is viewed as a game for boys.

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In Boston and surrounding cities with large immigrant populations, there may be many girls as passionate about soccer as Santos. But in addition to the cost of uniforms, travel, and coaching, there are social and cultural barriers keeping them off local fields as the fall club season gets underway.

While conversations about gender, sports, and equality typically focus on whether or not female athletes receive the same opportunities as male athletes, there are other measures of equality to consider. More attention should be paid to girls from urban areas and immigrant families who struggle to break into youth soccer or other predominantly white, prohibitively expensive sports. And more attempts should be made to remove barriers to participation and build systems that support them from the youngest age groups through high school.

The US hasn’t figured out how to recruit and develop soccer players from urban areas. In June, Doug Andreassen, the chairman of US Soccer’s diversity task force, told the Guardian, “The system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for the white kids.”

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He was speaking about the overall system for boys and girls. But from what Valeo sees with its local urban outreach, the system is not working to a greater extent for girls from African-American and immigrant families.

Since Valeo started club sites in Dorchester, East Boston, and Somerville two years ago, it has seen the boys program grow to 12 total teams. Meanwhile, the girls program struggles along without enough players to field full teams at any location. Santos started playing with the boys in Somerville before commuting to play with her Newton-based girls team.

For boys and girls, the biggest barrier is often economic.

Competing for a club soccer team can cost $3,000 or $4,000 or more each year. Parents pay because club soccer offers year-round, high-level training with professional coaches, as well as the promise of scouting by college and other elite programs. Fees for Valeo’s urban programs range from $500 to $1,500, though there are cases in which the club accepts whatever families can afford. (Many clubs offer scholarships, but that usually helps one or two coveted, exceptional players, not large numbers of urban kids looking for access to top teams and quality training.)

With girls, however, the social and cultural barriers can be the toughest to overcome. As part of the recruiting process, Valeo president and director of coaching Emelio Williams and other club staff members go to the homes of prospective players and talk about the benefits of soccer. Girls who play sports gain self-esteem, and develop leadership skills and self-discipline.

“We say, ‘Your daughter can use this as a means to open doors,’ ” said Williams. “A large part of it is the education of the parents, because they simply don’t know. They’re still trying to figure out America. The benefits aren’t apparent to them the way they are to other American parents.”

But even after Williams and his staff successfully recruit young girls from immigrant families, it can be difficult to keep them with the club. Sometimes transportation to and from practice becomes too problematic. Sometimes the parents’ work schedule changes and the family needs help at home when practice takes place.

Last spring, the East Boston 11-and-under girls team had 10 players. Now there are seven.

“The predominantly immigrant populations don’t seem to value sports for their daughters as much as they would for their sons,” said Nathan Stern, who has worked with inner-city Boston players for five years and currently serves as director of urban programs for Valeo. “If they need a baby sitter, the oldest girl stays home and watches the kids.

“There are a lot of kids who play when they’re 5 or 6 years old, but the retention rates are really, really low. As they get older, they drop out in big numbers. By the time they get to high school, it’s like pulling teeth getting girls to play sports.”

Again, Santos is among the lucky exceptions. Her family is committed to her soccer education for the long haul. In fact, her father, Ireno Santos, offered encouragement early on, always going through drills with both his son and his daughter. Her mother, Cheilla, knows that’s unusual. Now, Catherine could be a role model for others in her community.

“I have a lot of friends and they have girls,” said Cheilla. “I heard a father say, ‘Oh, I wish my daughter would be like Catherine so we can watch the games.’ Sometimes we invite them to watch the games and see how Catherine plays and they go and they like it.”

It’s a small but encouraging sign that attitudes may be changing, that social and cultural barriers may be diminishing. But there’s a long way to go before the system works for everyone.

Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at shira.springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraspringer.
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