On a cool fall night in Queens, players for the Auburndale Soccer Club walk onto the field for practice wearing masks and drop their bags six feet away from everyone else’s. Their parents, also masked and distanced, line up behind a fence at Cunningham Park, instead of on the grass as usual, to watch.
Players exchange a fist bump of encouragement or an elbow tap, instead of a high five. Though they are not required to wear a mask while playing, they stand by themselves at water breaks, and chatter among friends is limited.
Fall soccer season looks different this year, but despite the COVID-19 concerns – including a tussle with the city parks department and decreased enrollment – youth are showing up to play for the Auburndale Soccer Club.
“I was really excited when I heard what we will be back on the soccer field,” said 13-year-old Cameron Rosen, who plays for the Auburndale Express ’07.
The 43-year-old club usually draws about 700 players altogether, ages 3 to 19, to programs including First Kicks for the youngest, intramural play and travel teams.
This season, enrollment in its biggest program, travel soccer, has fallen by only about 12%, from about 400 to 350, said John Careddu, director of operations and treasurer. The club has not yet compiled numbers for the intramural program, which usually has about 175 players.
Although the city is requiring leagues to develop safety plans, Careddu said “a handful of parents have told us they will not be registering their children due to COVID-19 concerns.”
José Pujol, whose 12-year-old daughter plays for the ’08 Strikers, said he was willing to try. “There is a lot of uncertainty. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and being hopeful, but we may be set up for disappointment,” he said.
The tangle with the city parks department began in late August, when it announced that it would issue no fall field permits.
Coaches and parents across the boroughs objected, and a change.org petition created by South Bronx United, a youth soccer club in the Bronx, drew over 8,000 signatures. Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed the decision on Aug. 28. Auburndale expects to receive permits allowing full use of the fields at Fort Totten Park and Cunningham Park, where it plays each year.
The season will be two weeks shorter, running from Sept. 26 through Nov. 15. The club lowered prices, too. Typically, travel soccer costs $1,500 for 10 months, paid through an installment plan and used to cover expenses for trainers and facility upkeep. In March, when the spring season was cancelled because of COVID-19, the plan was frozen so no one had to pay for a season that couldn’t continue.
This season, Auburndale decreased the price of travel soccer by $150, and the club will work with any family struggling financially. “If a child wants to play, we will figure out how to get them involved,” said club President Thomas Claro.
Youth soccer has changed across the city this year. Last fall, the parks department issued 919 permits to youth soccer leagues, with the greatest number – 309 – in Manhattan, spokeswoman Charisse Hill said in an email. As of late September, it had issued 327 permits, with the greatest number in Brooklyn – 126.
The department requires organizations to complete a COVID-19 Safety Plan and Affirmation before it reviews requests. If an organization receives more than three violations during the season, the permit will be withdrawn.
Parks Department staff will perform spot inspections to ensure guidelines are followed, Hill said. Players and coaches at Auburndale Soccer Club must fill out a symptom-check questionnaire on an app, Team Snap, before every practice and game. Only people with negative self-checks can participate that day.
Players, coaches, staff and spectators must all wear masks while on the sidelines, and players must maintain distance when they are not active in the game.
Each player is only allowed two spectators for each game and practice, and after games everyone must leave the field, instead of the usual gathering.
Even with all those precautions, not every Auburndale parent found the decision to register children for fall soccer easy.
“We quarantined all summer,” said Maria Ceballos, whose 11-year-old son plays on the ’09 Arsenal. “As a parent, I am trying to do the best I can.”
The club won’t push any child into playing, said Denis Peros, coach of the Blast 2010. One boy on his team of 12 has not returned, but “he can come back whenever he feels comfortable,” Peros said. “His spot will be waiting for him.” Other parents, however, found the decision to play a no-brainer. Jonathon Rosen said he signed his three children up as soon as he could. “It’s great that they’re finally allowing them to play, and I hope they can continue as the season goes on,” he said.