By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Drive around Alexandria for five minutes and it’s impossible to miss it. It’s on the bumpers of countless cars and on fields across the city. An emblem in the shape of a shield, with a red soccer ball and fearsome crimson beast with a leonine body and snakelike tail, reminiscent of an English family crest – with “Alexandria” emblazoned in blue on top.
It’s the symbol of the Alexandria Soccer Association, a community athletics nonprofit in which entire generations of Alexandria families have participated in recreational and travel league teams. Over the course of its 50-year history, which ASA is celebrating this year after delaying the event due to the pandemic, ASA has evolved from an entirely volunteer-run provider of youth soccer to a professionalized organization with paid coaches and fulltime staff.
Still firmly based in grassroots community involvement, ASA has expanded its reach and legacy across the city. Between 2010, when ASA hired its first full-time executive director, Tommy Park, and 2021, ASA increased participation in its programs from 1,000 to about 6,000 players.
The Alexandria Times spoke with ASA’s directors, coaches and players to look back on 50 years of Alexandria Soccer history, the role it has played in Alexandria and how a community-based organization has adapted to an ever-changing urban landscape. It seems like almost everyone has a story about ASA, whether they coached, played or watched. But between the stories of family bonds forged on the field, bitter defeats and hard-won victories, one thread remains the same: ASA is about more than soccer – it’s about community.
“[Fifty years] is proof that ASA is committed to this community – and not just pockets of it but the whole damn thing. Everyone who lives here deserves to be a part of the community,” ASA Board President John Lavalle, who played in ASA when it started in the early 1970s, said. “… I’m a true believer in a community that partners together. I don’t care if it’s soccer or tiddlywinks. If we work together, we can solve a lot of [our] problems together.”
A group of residents founded ASA in 1970, and for the first 40 years of its existence, ASA was rooted in the hard work of volunteers. That first year, ASA had about 60 players.
From 1970 to about 1980, ASA only offered recreational soccer, what was then known as “town soccer,” and was organized around neighborhood teams. Compared to the scale of ASA’s operations today, the early days of the organization seem modest. Katie Brooks, public relations and community director for ASA, has been collecting newsletters from ASA’s early days that were published by parents and shared the most minute details of the games in any given week.
“I have all of these newsletters that are like, ‘The Silver Sharks showed well on Saturday. Jimmy and Crystal sprinted down the field,’” Brooks said. “… Now, we share a lot of stories, but I’m hardly ever calling out a specific kid because there’s so many kids. I don’t need to mention the tot that learned to dribble on Saturday with their pinkie toe – and that’s in this newsletter.”
But in the 70s, those little details mattered and helped bond teams spread across the city. Lavalle started playing on his father’s Rosemont team at the age of 4 in 1971 and continued playing on ASA teams until he was 16. He recalled his powder blue uniform – “That was Rosemont. Everybody knew it.” – and the feeling of putting on his first travel uniform when ASA started offering travel soccer, known as Select, in the 80s.
“I remember when you first got your travel uniforms you were wearing it to school like it was a shirt,” Lavalle said. “It was sort of braggadocious, but it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m on the travel team.’”
By the time the 1980s and 1990s rolled around and ASA started offering these new opportunities, volunteers had taken on significantly more responsibility. They were organizing and coaching neighborhood teams, getting up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays to line the fields for games and processing registration. Brooks said she found notes from an early volunteer who had created mathematical equations to paint perfect 90-degree angles on fields. Parents who had their children on Select teams would pool money and give it to a volunteer who would register a team for tournaments and pay coaches a modest stipend.
Although many volunteers and community members viewed ASA’s origins as the halcyon days, they also admitted that this period had its challenges.
For starters, ASA was a boys’ only league for its first few years and did not allow girls to play until the late 70s.
“I can’t tell you how frustrating it would be for me and friends of mine,” Stephanie Satterfield, a former ASA volunteer, said. “We would go and watch our brothers play or friends of ours play, and we had to sit on the sidelines. We just couldn’t do it; they wouldn’t let us.”
Satterfield’s father coached her older brother in the 1970s, although she got her chance to play – at the age of 15 – when ASA opened its programs to girls. Satterfield would play for two seasons and later return as a volunteer coach for her children between 1990 and 1997.
The volunteer-run nature of ASA is what helped root it in Alexandria and continues to be the core of the organization. Parents and children alike have found new ways to connect with their neighbors and community through sport and friendly competition.
“I think the biggest thing is [my kids] created this whole network of soccer friends, so it’s been a very social thing,” Veronica Babineux, who played in ASA Select in the 90s and later volunteered as a rec coach for her daughter in 2017, said. “They’re already going to have this network of friends that they created at the age of 7, 8 and 9 years old because of soccer.”
“The adults who have coached or who have had their kids in soccer for a long time, I’ve gotten to know [them]. Those have become friendships and relationships that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Jon DeNunzio, who has been a volunteer coach since his daughter started playing in ASA in first grade, said. DeNunzio still coaches his daughter, who is now a sophomore at Bishop Ireton High School.
Years later, several volunteer coaches marveled at the growth they saw in not only their own children but all the children they helped on the field. Babineux recalled coaching a team of 4-yearolds at the beginning of the season and how the experience felt like “herding sheep.” One child spent the entire first practice following her around and telling her what he wanted for Christmas instead of scrimmaging. But by the end of the season, Babineux’s work had paid off.
“I saw a couple kids cutting the ball and doing a move, like a fake,” Babineux said. “… Then, they would run up to me later and say, ‘When are we going to play soccer again?’ even though it was the end of the season.”
For many parents, the experience of coaching their children or being involved directly in their child’s athletic experience is an opportunity to bond in a way that few city programs offer.
Satterfield’s daughter, unlike her mother, was able to start playing in ASA leagues at a young age. Her daughter went on to play college soccer and now coaches an all-girls high school team in Bristol, Virginia.
“For me, watching her from the beginning when she was kind of a mess on the field to seeing her progress to now where she’s sharing what she learned all these years, I’m extremely proud of her,” Satterfield said. “She just rocks as a coach. That legacy for me, from my dad to me to her, that’s priceless.”
Big changes, little city
ASA’s all-volunteer structure presented some challenges for the organization’s long-term growth.
“I know the flaw: It was all run by parents who care about their kids, so interest comes and goes with that philosophy,” Lavalle said.
Between a board and coaching staff that would turn over frequently, Lavalle said it was often hard to get momentum going for various long-term initiatives. Often, parents’ involvement would start and end with their child’s involvement and could produce conflicts of interest when it came to coaches’ decisions on the field.
According to Satterfield, volunteer referees also didn’t always have a firm understanding of soccer, which could produce arguments between referees and parents in the stands. In order to provide that foundation, Satterfield and a few other volunteers put together a handbook and held classes for volunteer referees.
During its first few decades, ASA was also more akin to a franchise model, Tommy Park, ASA’s executive director since 2011, said.
“Every coach did their own little thing. You could play for ASA, but you wouldn’t know what’s our style of play, what are our priorities at each age group, what fundamentals do you need to be introduced to to master the sport over time?” Park said.
By 2010, ASA had grown to about 1,000 players, and the organization had hired some part-time office administrators and, at one point, a parttime executive director. It had grown from its offices in the basement of Del Ray Methodist Church to a closet-sized office in the Lee Center. However, the volunteer-led board decided that, in light of U.S. soccer’s skyrocketing profile, ASA needed to professionalize its operations and focus its growth in order to reach more players and areas of the city.
In 2011, ASA hired Park, who was coaching at DeMatha Catholic High School and for D.C. United’s under 20 program, as its first full-time executive director. From the start, Park said his intent was to expand ASA’s programming and reach to areas of the city that had long been underserved.
“There’s a lot of unstructured play in the city, but they weren’t really aware of how to join a team. We spent the last 10 years ensuring that no matter what it took, every kid in the city – and now adults – are aware that, ‘Hey, I can join a team regardless of where I live in the city, how much money I have or the other barriers to entry,’” Park said.
Park and his full-time staff expanded programming to include early childhood and adults, as well as futsal, a popular form of indoor soccer played on a smaller field and with a small ball. Participation has grown to about 6,000 players, including 1,000 players in its free after school leagues. ASA also increased its scholarship offerings from about $4,000 in the 90s to about $600,000 for 1,500 players in 2022.
During the last 10 years, ASA has made both big and small changes. The travel program is now called Academy and Academy coaches are paid as part-time employees. Volunteer coaches in the rec league are still not paid, but ASA now pays for all gear and equipment, from goals and cones to jerseys and first aid kits. There are also now in-house coaching clinics.
According to Park, the goal has been to maintain ASA’s grassroots emphasis while developing a unified vision.
“The point is no matter what form of an organizational structure we’ve developed into, that organic interaction between neighbors and developing lifelong friends not just for the players but for the parents is one of the most powerful things,” Park said.
For some volunteers, ASA’s evolution has been an improvement.
“If you need some help figuring out what to run in practice, they have more resources and they have more people who are willing to come and out help,” DeNunzio said.
For others, ASA’s shift toward professionalization has provided structure sometimes at the cost of the creative problem solving, collaboration and diverse viewpoints that came from an entirely volunteer-run operation.
“Everybody brought their own perspective to it, and it wasn’t just, ‘Ok, this is what we’re doing,’” Satterfield said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that because structure is good in certain ways, but I think that things came out of having all these different people. Ideas came out of all these different people.”
More recently, ASA had to undergo an even more significant evolution due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, like all athletics organizations, ASA paused everything. Suddenly, the very concept of close, physical contact was a threat.
In lieu of in-person programming, ASA coaches offered virtual workout sessions, training and drills. However, since soccer is an outdoor sport, ASA was able to start transitioning into physically distanced, masked summer camps in 2020. By fall 2020, ASA started opening up its program offerings, requiring masks for coaches, staff and players on the bench.
Although the pandemic posed challenges for ASA, the organization was able to focus further on community partnerships with Alexandria City Public Schools and the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities in the form of its School Plus and Camp Alex programs.
“With ACPS, we did an all outdoor classroom for the entire year where we had kids come whose parents needed care during the day, and we had stations during the day,” Park said. “… We hired half coaches and half educators, so when kids had little breaks, the coaches could go do little activities with them in small groups. Then while the kids were learning virtually, they all had their little computers, we had tutors to help make sure that they were on board.”
Ellie Goodrich, a current ASA player and recipient of the first annual ASA Griffin Award, said the pandemic gave her the opportunity to get involved in the community in new ways.
“To me, it was great individually to focus a little bit more on skills and focusing on myself instead of being immersed in a team that has a broader goal,” Goodrich said.
Looking back on the last 50 years of Alexandria Soccer – the friendships formed, games won and lessons learned – Lavalle, who has been there almost since day one, said although Alexandria and ASA have changed, the value of a community organization like ASA stays the same.
“I don’t think every kid wants to be or should be or there’s a chance for them to be a great soccer player, but if it gives them a love for sport, I think sport can solve, if you embrace it, a lot of our issues in this world,” Lavalle said. “We tend to come together for sport.”