Everyone seemed to be enjoying Jack’s run across the field; a testament to how much TOPSoccer athletes and buddies love the program.
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Last year, Needham’s TOPSoccer program ran in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic after recognizing a disparity: many competitive soccer clubs were playing, but programs for young people with disabilities had virtually all been cancelled. While some families opted to skip the year, many played and were extremely thankful to the program for giving their children the chances to get outside and socialize during the strictest months of the pandemic.
TOPSoccer - The Outreach Program for Soccer - is a youth soccer training and placement program for athletes with disabilities. The program is focused on bringing soccer to members of the community with physical or mental disabilities. It is an extension of US Youth Soccer’s directive "to foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of America's youth through the sport of soccer at all levels of age and competition."
Nearly a year later, while many other events and activities have returned, TOPSoccer hasn’t shrunken in number. Between the families that opted out last year returning and the new families that have heard about and signed up for the program, in its eighth year, TOPSoccer’s numbers are larger than they’ve ever been. Needham Soccer Club Director of Player and Coach Development Lee Popper explained that the growth is largely tied to word of mouth, and the recognition that spacious outdoor events (TOPSoccer spreads out among two giant fields at Defazio Park) are inherently COVID-friendly.
“It’s an outdoor event. It’s an outlet that, kind of, word has spread. And it’s a tight community, so it’s really nice on the sidelines where you see the parents that come -- most of them know each other and some of the new ones are getting to know each other. It’s a very good, tight community in that sense, because they share other programs or classes together, coming from maybe a school they all go to together, or different special needs programs the kids are in together.”
Popper noted that because TOPSoccer holds its events on Sundays at 4 p.m., it doesn't run into much competition from the other programs in which the kids might be participating. But, even if there were competition, Popper is just glad to see TOPSoccer's participants getting more active.
“The timeframe we have: it’s only on Sundays and it’s at 4 in the afternoon so there are rarely other events that take place at that time. But what’s nice to hear is they are getting more active with their other activities, as well. A group of them came from a picnic they had, so there are other activities they’re all doing together, which is nice.”
But while being distanced outside makes TOPSoccer very COVID-friendly, organizers are still very conscientious about the virus. If a family wants their athlete and his or her ”buddy” to wear masks, organizers fine with that. Additionally, TOPSoccer's volunteer “buddies” range from eighth to twelfth grader, which places them at an age where they can be safely vaccinated.
Still, while some previous measures, like sanitizing the balls, have gone away, the games are still tailored to be COVID-safe.
“We’re very conscientious of COVID. We have sanitizer out; everyone understands what our safe methods are of playing together and are conscientious of that.”
Last year, the “buddies” tended to be older and more experienced, but this year, Popper said the program has been able to incorporate some younger volunteers. He also said there are some very good Needham soccer players helping out, and that it’s not unheard of for college students to come back to the program to say "hi" once they’ve graduated from it.
Popper said the program may have to eventually cap the number of players if organizers feel they’re not providing the same level of experience they used to. However, while the numbers are higher than ever before, given how well this season is going, Popper doesn’t feel TOPSoccer is close to having to take those measures.
“It’s a really energetic and enjoyable season so far,” he explained. “You can tell, given the environment that’s out there, this is still a great outlet for them. And it’s clear parents are excited to bring their children to the event.”