In June 2017, the U-15 Chicago Knights boys team won their first Illinois State Cup. But their story begins four years prior, at six different Soccer for Success sites around Chicago.
In 2013, nineteen boys joined their respective schools’ Soccer for Success teams. Learning the lessons of leadership and nutrition while honing their soccer skills, the boys began to flourish and create friendships.
Bryan Franco, who has participated in Soccer for Success for 10 years, believes that “Soccer for Success is organic…I like seeing my teammates get better.”
During the Soccer for Success season, these six teams played against each other.
“The boys would play each other on weekends with their Soccer for Success teams,” says Ale Jurado, Illinois Youth Soccer Association (IYSA) program coordinator. “I would always tell them to be respectful and show good sportsmanship to the other teams because you never know who you will be playing alongside tomorrow.”
As the boys continued to develop their skills, many of them began to express their desire to play soccer at a higher level of competition.
“To keep players enrolled in Soccer for Success programming and playing at a higher level, we created Chicago Knights FC,” explains Ale.
Chicago Knights FC is a competitive soccer club comprised of current Soccer for Success participants and coach-mentors. The club provides players the opportunity to compete at a higher level, while keeping the inclusive culture of Soccer for Success.
“Any Soccer for Success participant that wants to play at the higher level can with the Knights,” says Ale. “There is no tryout process and the club maintains the environment that every player gets to play. It’s an important part of the club’s culture that sets it apart from other programs.”
At the start of her coach-mentor career, Diane observed that many kids seemed to feel welcome in the Soccer for Success space. “In a lot of the soccer programs that are offered, they focus more on kids that are at a more competitive level and isolate the other kids,” she explains. “Not having tryouts and not pinpointing the kids that are more advanced helps our kids feel more involved and as though they have a part in something.”
Everyone involved in the creation of the Chicago Knights had to be adaptable. To coach at the competitive club level, coach-mentors had to go through official coaching license courses to be permitted to coach youth club teams. Of the six coaches, four now have D licenses and two have E licenses.
Even though Brandon, who currently coaches a U-14 Chicago Knights team, joined Soccer for Success with an E license, he still wanted to gain higher accreditation to become a better coach for his players.
Having played soccer his whole life, he believed that earning higher licenses might allow him to expand his own knowledge, better explain the curriculum, and learn how to best relay it to his players.
“I want to see what clicks with these kids, see if they can make the jump from recreational soccer in their neighborhood to maybe competitive club travel, especially for kids in the city who might not get as much exposure as kids in the suburbs, or who have other means of getting recognized,” he says.
Diane, too, saw how earning her coaching license could have a positive impact. “You want to keep the kids motivated and you want them to learn more,” she explains. “If you want them to learn, you have to challenge yourself to learn more as a coach [and] then relay [what you learn] to the kids.”
For the players, joining the Chicago Knights meant that they elected to participate in both programs, and to therefore, play soccer four to five days per week, with both Soccer for Success and competitive club matches taking place on the weekends. Because not all Soccer for Success participants compete with the Chicago Knights, normal Soccer for Success programming continues to provide the curriculum to all participants; Soccer for Success participants who wish to also compete with the Chicago Knights practice and play games as an accompaniment to their Soccer for Success programming.
Ale has no qualms about the players’ dedication and their ability to balance both the Soccer for Success programming and the Chicago Knights schedule.
She says that because the players have already demonstrated their commitment to the Soccer for Success program, they are prepared to translate that sense of responsibility to a club environment. “For those players,” she says, “you already know that they are going to make that good transition of being committed.”
In fact, Bryan owes a lot of his team’s success to consistent training in both programs. "Our team wasn't really good at the beginning,” he says, “but now we're getting better and able to play against better competition to see what's out there and improve our game."
HOW SOCCER FOR SUCCESS LAYS THE FOUNDATION
While the Chicago Knights play at a higher level of competition, the club has adapted much of the environment created from Soccer for Success. And, for most, it is the reason why players prefer to stay on with the Chicago Knights instead of joining a different competitive club.
"The Chicago Knights provides access to competitive soccer, without the competitive culture,” says Ale, “and offers them access to higher level soccer without the fear that they won’t have the skill or talent necessary.”
Like Soccer for Success, the Knights have an environment that fosters growth and development, but also places emphasis on community.
“We really give that mentorship component because we stay pretty small,” explains Brandon.
Sixteen-year-old Angel Dominguez feels similarly about the positive impact of the community. “The support of the players, the coaches, the support of everyone around you really encourages you to play better and do better on the field.”
Since their inception, the Chicago Knights have won three league division championships and one Illinois State Cup title as a club. Illinois Youth Soccer has more than 20 active Soccer for Success sites across Chicago for the 2018 spring season.
The Chicago Knights hope to defend their league titles and win another championship this season.