Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Defenders find it’s a tough job guarding DUSC’s Simone Russo
Photo by C.C.F. Gachet

Soccer star blazed a trail for girls’ teams in city

By Judith Stiles

How often do you find a 13-year-old girl in the forefront of changing the face of youth sports in New York City? Usually changes happen very slowly, born out of endless meetings with adults arguing about programs and fields. Who would have guessed that Simone Russo of Lower Manhattan, would be making big personal decisions that would blaze the trail for girls in the city, making it possible for female athletes from every borough to find better soccer opportunities on a more level playing field?

Simone just wanted to play soccer. She did not see herself as a role model to girls from all over the city. However, starting with her first days of playing soccer on a boys’ team in 1996 at J.J. Walker Field (a dirty dustbowl back then), Simone’s activities shone a spotlight on the lack of organized soccer programs for girls as well as boys, catapulting the Village community into making sweeping changes over the next decade.

In l996, there were no girls soccer travel teams in the five boroughs and no funding for qualified coaches to develop teams or players. Today, there are dozens of girls’ travel teams, elite select teams and borough-wide funding for licensed coaches to hold free clinics for girls as young as 8 years old.

Bemused about her early soccer years, Russo remembers the days of playing on dirt and gravel with unqualified referees, often playing against teams who wore matching T-shirts for uniforms. Back then, the word on the street was that the only decent girls’ soccer teams were in Long Island and that girls from the city did not know how to play. Today, several girls from the five boroughs, including Russo, have qualified for the Olympic Development Team and dozens of girls have qualified for the elite Super-Y League teams that are known for including the top 1 percent of players in the country.

“I have been playing soccer practically every day since. . .I don’t know, since I was about 8 years old,” says Russo, now 17, with a big grin, expressing the limitless passion she has about the game. Last year she was captain of her varsity team at Poly Prep in Brooklyn, while playing on an Olympic Development Team, the Brooklyn Knights Super-Y League team and also a club team, the Eastchester Patriots. She recalls that it was not unusual to be finishing homework at 2 in the morning.

She has no regrets about the hectic lifestyle of the past few years, emphasizing that she herself wanted to play that much soccer because she loves the game. Now that she has the keys to the family car and a driver’s license, she looks back on the past nine years in awe at how helpful her parents have been in facilitating her soccer career. “I definitely could not have played all this soccer without my parents’ support, especially my dad, who drove me everywhere!” she adds with great thanks to her father, Bob Russo, president of the Downtown United Soccer Club. For years Bob Russo not only drove his daughter to all her games and practices, he simultaneously worked diligently to create and develop new programs that would benefit children from all over the city. His colleagues from Downtown United joke that Bob Russo was one of the first people to get a speakerphone and then a headset for his cell phone, so he could conduct a great deal of soccer business on his way to and from Simone’s practices.

This spring, Simone Russo graduates from Poly Prep High School as a member of the National Honor Society, an honor roll student and a recipient of the New York State Attorney General’s Award for Character Excellence. At a recent ceremony when she was given an All-League and M.V.P. award, her coach, Dan Mirsky, stated that the one yardstick that all the coaches in the conference used in deciding whether a player deserved to be an All-League player was how well they were able to defend against Simone Russo.

Next fall, Russo will play Division 1 college soccer on the prestigious George Washington University womens’ soccer team. Although his daughter graduates from local soccer, Bob Russo is by no means graduating from his volunteer work in the sports community. He is eagerly planning tournaments and new programs that will be hosted at the new FieldTurf artificial-surface fields at Pier 40 at W. Houston St., as he continues his post as president of DUSC.

As Simone Russo fiddles with her dad’s car keys before she takes off in his S.U.V., she pauses a moment to reflect. “Even though it is George Washington University, I think my parents might just be at every game, especially my dad,” she says beaming with pride. “He gets to all my games.”

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