From left to right, Maggie Vasconi and Kara Pepe, both of the Staten Island Explosion; Jane OHara, Downtown United Soccer Club; Genna Pepe, Staten Island Rockets; and Sandy Greene, Manhattan Kickers, diagram a play. They all play together on the New York Magic.
Two years ago most of the girls from Staten Island would have described their opponents from the Downtown United Soccer Club as being stuck up. . . those snooty brats from Manhattan. Likewise the girls from Manhattan had a running joke that Staten Island was really a chunk of New Jersey that broke off, got lost at sea, and never made it to the Big Apple.
Middle School girls are sometimes known for being vicious, and that behavior occasionally surfaced on the floor of the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer Leagues annual tournament, where the field is small and sniping among the players can be heard loud and clear. In prior years, even the parents fueled the bitter rivalry, exchanging ugly comments at halftime, accusing opposing teams of cheating by using overage players or players of making premeditated rough tackles.
Girls from clubs in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx were no angels either. The distaste for each other would percolate all season so that by the time they got to the winter C.J.S.L. tournament, spectators were expecting the fur to fly.
This February, at the annual Cosmopolitan Girls Tournament everything was different. Players from rival teams gave each other hello hugs, while parents from Staten Island and Manhattan had warm chats about good restaurants, bad mother-in-laws, new schools, old snow and the final episode of Sex and the City. Even the coaches were friendly with one another. It was world peace at the annual Girls C.J.S.L. Tournament. What the heck happened?
It is no accident that the people from the different boroughs who gathered for this event got along with each other. Two years ago the Girls Soccer Development Program began and the hard work involved in coordinating such diverse soccer clubs has come to fruition. Under the leadership of Bob Russo, DUSC president, an outreach program began where girls from teams in each borough joined together to play on an inter-borough Select Team in the summer of 2002. Families and players got to know one another because having to endure soccer matches in pouring rain or sweltering heat forced the different factions to let down their guard and get acquainted.
Now when the players and families meet as rivals, it is still a fierce competition, but with a much healthier undertone to the play. In the Under-12 division, the Staten Island Mustangs and DUSC had a tie score in the finals. The rules of this tournament sent them into a five-minute, sudden-death overtime where the team that scored the next goal would win the entire tournament. DUSCs star goalie happened to be playing on the field as a defender in that game and out of habit, picked up the ball with her hands, exclaiming, Oh no, Im not the goalie!
Staten Island was awarded a penalty kick, made the goal, won the game and the tournament. The Staten Island team was ecstatic to win, but did not rub it in against the DUSC squad. They lined up at the end of the game, shook hands, told each other great game and meant it. Coach Gustavo Palomino of DUSC was relaxed and forgiving about the error, emphasizing that they are only 11 years old and anyone could have made that mistake.
At the U-16 C.J.S.L. Girls Tournament, Downtown United took third place behind the Staten Island Rockets, in second place, and the first-place Staten Island Explosion. John Bennett, parent of Downtown Uniteds Minnie Bennett, ran the scoreboard, wedged in between opposing coaches for each game. He was compelled to listen to their every word (make that, shout), which often can be a grueling experience. However, Bennett was thoroughly surprised to discover that the coaches were cordial and pleasant with their opponents.
It was also an eye-opener to see how Mike Santarpia, Heshem Kotby and Rudy Chirinos of Staten Island did a magnificent job coaching their girls by always encouraging them and being very positive. They never took the browbeating-screaming approach that usually doesnt work with girls.
Because of the C.J.S.L. Girls Soccer Development Program these girls learned that they had a common ground and the ability to be friends with girls they deemed to be the enemy just two short years ago.
Youth sports is often a little petri dish of social relations. Habits, attitudes and the politics of living are germinating for these girls in every game. Perhaps the delegates for different countries in the United Nations should designate a recess time after lunch period where they mix up the countries and play soccer matches together for a summer in pouring rain and 90-degree weather. Of course then delegates from the U.S.A. would have to call it football not soccer, to be in step with the rest of the world.