METRO — Their method of coaching has changed dramatically in the weeks since gathering for soccer practice has been impossible.
But for local youth soccer clubs, adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic has not lessened the thirst for competition.
"We look at this situation as an opponent. We have an opponent across from us that we need to prepare for and make adjustments for," said Brandon McNeil, the technical director for United PDX, which serves Northeast and Southwest Portland for recreational soccer and draws players from around the region for its teams that compete at state, regional and national levels.
"We have to be flexible," McNeil said. "We have to adapt and change, no different than building a soccer team."
For organzations such as United PDX, moving to online training sessions has been a significant adjustment. But it has allowed his club to stay connected with its players.
Isolation, McNeil said, is not an excuse to avoid training. He noted that it takes only a small area, a soccer ball and perhaps a cone or two to be able to work on dribbling, juggling and other ball skills.
United PDX, which formed two years ago with a merger between Bridlemile Soccer Club and Northeast United, includes just under 3,000 players in a range of levels that includes neighborhood-based recreation soccer programs to teams that compete for state and national championships.
When the stay-at-home order was announced, one of the first steps United PDX took was to join like-minded clubs by challenging players to submit videos on Facebook or Instagram of themselves completing a designated skill or challenge. The entries are then judged and the winners awarded prizes. The virtual club challenge started with six youth soccer clubs. As of last week, 30 clubs across the nation are participating, and McNeil said they have begun receiving entries from individual players not affiliated with those clubs.
"It just really took off," he said.
Judges have been well-known soccer professionals. That list includes former University of Portland goalkeeper Luis Robles, now with Inter Miami in MLS after many years playing for the New York Red Bulls, Westview High graduate Eric Hurtado, now with Sporting Kansas City, U.S. Women's National Team players Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn, and recently retired Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The first virtual challenge was juggling. Others have included the toilet paper challenge where players juggle rolls of TP, a trick-shot challenge and a juggling tricks challenge. Elle Unflat, a United PDX and Wilson High player, earned a second-place prize last week for her 40-second video of juggling tricks. Her prize is a discount from training equipment provider Skilz.
Competition also is encouraged at Bridge City Soccer Academy, an all-girls club based in Hillsboro that formed a year ago. It is using Techne Futbol, a soccer drills app, to continue skills development for players during the stay-at-home order. Each week the club's 160 players are given drills to do and a video to watch using the app.
Bridge City monitors how long each player spends training with the app and, to encourage participation and competition, posts a leaderboard of the players who log the most time on the app each week.
Clubs are using social media platforms to share training drills with their members.
Trevor Smith, a Tigard High senior and team captain of his United PDX team, provided a 10-minute YouTube video demonstrating a variety of ball-control drills for players stuck at home.
Smith, who plans to play soccer at Chapman University in Southern California, said that while he misses the games and his teammates, he is spending one to two hours a day training, including going on runs, strength training and soccer drills.
"It's not a realistic comparison to playing a game," Smith said. But he has more time to focus on individual skill development than he would if his team were preparing for competition.
"So there are pros and cons" to the new way of training, Smith said. He noted that it's easy to find space to do individual drills or a wall to pass the ball against.
The clubs are using popular platforms such as Facebook Live and Instagram to promote activities for players and teams. Coaches also are holding team meetings using online applications.
Some of the programming from local clubs goes beyond soccer. For example, Bridge City Soccer Club presented a Christopher McDougall TED talk exploring the human desire to run. For its younger players, it shared a documentary about the "Soccer Grannies" of South Africa, a group of impoverished women ages 55-84 who meet weekly to do soccer drills as a form of physical and emotional fitness.
United PDX's McNeil believes lessons from the pandemic will be lasting. He envisions staff meetings remaining online instead of having every coach commute to gather. The same could happen for club-wide and team meetings involving parents. Some of the higher-level United PDX teams draw players from Hood River to Salem, so online team and club gatherings can save parents significant time.
Another lasting development might be collaboration among clubs around the country, McNeil said.
Hearns said Bridge City Soccer Club wants to keep many of their interactions light and fun. One of the recent challenges was a version of bingo where players earned letters by doing things like chores at home, completing a juggling drill, or spending an hour doing training drills on the Techne Futball app. Other examples are a meme contest, a live scavenger hunt, even aJeopardy contest.
Last week, Hearns and her staff were organizing a club-wide effort to get lunches for Hillsboro students who are missing out on free meals at school. Details about that project had not yet been finalized, but it reflects the community involvement Bridge City Soccer Club expects of its players.
"For us, it's really about creating a complete person," Hearns said. "We want kids who are going to give back to the community."
She said the downtime has allowed the year-old Bridge City Soccer Club club to focus on coaching education, something that would be on the back burner if not for the inability to meet with teams.
"It's really given us time to get into things we wouldn't be able to do if we were busy coaching," Hearns said.
Late April is state championship season for many youth soccer teams. The first weekend in May is when most state cup tournament champions are crowned. All of those competitions, including all spring seasons, have been canceled.
Also on hold are the annual tryouts that clubs hold in early May to form teams for the next 12 months. But United PDX and Bridge City Soccer Club are among those now registering players for the 2020-21 year.
"We want our players to register. We will continue to provide digital content to them," McNeil said. "And we want to have teams formed so that when we get the go-ahead to be on fields together again."