OLDSMAR – For most young athletes, there’s no bigger thrill than meeting their professional heroes.
Whether a kid plays baseball or basketball, football or tennis, meeting or interacting with an athlete that’s playing at the pinnacle of the sport is a feeling that can’t be replaced and is rarely forgotten.
That was the situation players with the Oldsmar Youth Soccer program found themselves in last week, as nearly 100 kids and soccer fans got to watch a practice and get autographs from, and selfies with, members of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls.
“He’s a goalie, so of course he had to get the goalie’s autograph,” Westchase resident Chad Pears said after his 8-year-old son, Chace, got his glove signed by Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles.
Pears, whose 9-year-old son, Hudsyn, was also at the Oldsmar Sports Complex on Thursday afternoon, said the kids are at the age where it’s fun to get their favorite stars to sign.
“They’re at that age where they’re excited about autographs,” he said. “But this is a great thing they’re doing. They really did a good job setting this up.”
The Red Bulls two-week training session, which is part of an agreement between MLS and the Visit St. Pete Clearwater tourism committee, was marked by some miscommunication and a vague understanding of the team’s schedule; a scrimmage match that had been slated for the revamped was suddenly switched to USF, a move that reportedly left about 75 unhappy fans waiting at the Tampa Road complex for a game that never came.
However, officials say the goal of the arrangement – helping local soccer programs while creating a spring training home for professional soccer teams in the area – was achieved.
“The kids were very excited about this,” John Linse, Oldsmar Youth Soccer Association’s GM and director of operations, said. “We knew about it for a while but had to wait until it was officially announced, and when it was they were very excited to learn that a professional soccer team was going to be using the same field they play on.”
Linse said roughly 70 players of all ages from various area youth soccer programs were at the field to witness the Red Bulls practice, and he stressed the benefits of watching pros firsthand.
“I’ve been up here every day and I’ve been around soccer for 14 years, collegiately and the Rowdies, and this team brought a different vibe than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s a different level of competitiveness, a different level of speed, a different level of organization, and until you see it, you can’t appreciate it.”
Linse said he was encouraged by the Red Bull’s desire to connect with the local soccer community, a mission he hopes will continue after this abbreviated spring season ends.
“I spoke with team officials about creating a partnership that benefits our kids and the youth soccer programs in the area in general,” Linse said. “This is the first year, and hopefully we can continue to build on the relationship.”
That feeling was echoed by Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis.
“What they did for the kids, you can’t even measure the value of that,” Bevis said one day after attending a dinner provided for the team by local Italian eatery, Casa Cosenza. “Today, the kids were on one side of the fence at practice, but there’s nothing to stop them from being on the other side someday. That’s what’s important to us as someone responsible for taxpayer dollars – taking care of the kids.”