Building community through soccer is what the Millennium Soccer Club (MSC) has been doing in South Madison since 2001. MSC’s goal is to bring affordable and accessible organized youth soccer to Madison’s low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. The Club was founded by Dan Wood, a social worker with Madison’s public schools, and Kelly Pochop, former special education teacher at Memorial High School, after discussions with parents, community leaders, school district personnel, and soccer supporters. In 16 years, the program has served more than 1,500 elementary school children with a fall, spring, and summer soccer program.
The Club operates at three schools—Lincoln, Huegel, and Leopold Elementary—as well as at Marlborough Park in the Allied Drive area. Soccer players from grades one through five are recruited from the neighborhoods around each of these schools and the park. Six sessions are scheduled on Saturday mornings during the fall and spring. Summer camps are held in the late afternoon/early evening.
The players meet for one and a half hours. The first half of the session is instructional time, when the youngsters are taught basic ball-handling skills and teamwork. During the second half, a 4v4 game is played. At the end of play, coaches share observations and give feedback to players on how well they executed the skills that were taught in the first part of the session.
MSC games are not played with a goalie. According to Tom Grogg, Millennium’s Board President, with smaller teams and no goalie, each young person gets more playing time and more chances to make a play with the ball. Also, goalies need to be trained, and with the limited time coaches have with the players, there just isn’t time enough to do so.
Players in MSC receive a great deal of attention from their coaches. Each team of six to eight players has two coaches, many of whom are high school soccer players, University of Wisconsin–Madison and Madison College students, and involved adults. Coordinators, who are paid a small stipend, are at each of the four sites. They send out practice plans and coaching tips to the coaches, and give the coaches feedback each week. Because many of the coaches are players, few have had coaching experience and need guidance to become more effective in helping the younger players.
Not only are the elementary school children learning to play soccer and improve their skills, but the older students are learning how to be soccer coaches and improve their coaching skills. Several of the coaches played in MSC when they were young. “The younger kids love the high school kids,” Tom says. “And the older kids love sharing their knowledge of the game with the young players.”
Tom is especially proud of two former Lincoln School players. Alex Solache, who will begin his junior year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was honored in 2015 by United Way of Dane County with the Community Volunteer Youth Award because of his long-term service as a volunteer coach and interactions with a very diverse group of kids. Alex’s family was able to further his participation in a soccer program after Alex’s MSC experience. He went on to become captain of the West High School varsity team. The other, Frankie Herrera, was awarded a partial scholarship to play soccer at the University of Charleston in West Virginia. Both he and his brothers have been MSC coaches at Lincoln School. “It’s wonderful both of these young men had the opportunity to move on and be successful as young adults,” Tom says.
Tom doesn’t coach, but he does observe the Lincoln School games and talks about what he has observed with the players. Ever the educator—he was the physical education teacher at Lincoln School before retiring 12 years ago—he will ask, “Who made a pass? How many of you stole a ball?” He talks about the skills the players have been learning and practicing and also encourages them to keep playing during school recess time and in their neighborhoods.
The final score of a MSC game is not that important. Tom describes it more as “fun to fun” rather than “three to one.” It’s more important that the kids feel good about how they played and that they had fun. Tom wants them to see how they are improving week to week and how they are getting better as a team rather than consider wins versus losses.
MSC games, played with fewer team members on the field (four rather than eight or nine), are also different from the traditional game because one of the team’s coaches is playing with the kids. That on-field coach is serving as a role model for the team, setting up a ball for someone who is ready for it, or the coach may stop play for 30 seconds in the middle of a game when the teaching moment is right. “It’s important the players get that feedback in process. It helps them realize if they follow the coach’s advice, they might be in a better position to score,” Tom explains. “The youngsters are there for so little time each week, every minute they get encouragement helps them get better.”
One of Tom’s favorite games played with fourth and fifth graders is with three pop-up goals. The opposing team’s coach stands behind one of the goals but the team with the ball can’t score at that goal if the coach is there. This particular method helps the players to see if they don’t pass the ball to another player, they won’t score a goal that counts. “The game is the teacher,” Tom says.
About 75 percent of approximately 300 students registered to play in the four neighborhood programs each year are youngsters of color—60 percent boys and 40 percent girls. Teams are divided into two groups: first and second graders play together and third through fifth graders are together. The number of players showing up on any given Saturday is dependent on the weather, but MSC works to reschedule, if possible, sessions that are canceled due to grim conditions.
Tom credits much of MSC’s success to collaboration between the Club and principals and staff at each of the schools the players attend. Teachers help to spread the word about MSC to parents and provide registration information for interested students to take home. One of the fifth grade teachers at Lincoln even contributes scholarships so students in her class can play even if they can’t afford the $15 registration fee.
Another important factor in MSC’s success has been the financial support received from local businesses, churches, foundations, PTOs, service clubs, and individuals. Tom also gives kudos to the Madison Area Youth Soccer Association and the Regent Soccer Club, which have been with helping MSC with donations and arranging fundraisers since the beginning.
Tom would like to see the Millennium Soccer Club expand to elementary schools in the Warner Park area on the north side of Madison. However, expansion, as with so many nonprofit organizations, depends on having enough funding to do so.
MSC is always looking for supporters and volunteers. Soccer enthusiasts will find opportunities to give time, donations, and gently used soccer equipment at millenniumsoccerclub.org .
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.