Free soccer league benefits players, impacts neighbourhoods

A free soccer league has been positively affecting the children playing the game as well as the neighbourhoods the games are played in. Free Footie is a free, after-school soccer league for kids in the highest needs neighbourhoods in Edmonton - kids facing barriers to "regular" leagues. Founded by CBC reporter Tim Adams in 2008, the league has uncovered such a wide-ranging need in Edmonton communities that expansion has been bounded only by resources and the time-constraints of volunteers. In addition to running the league free of fees, Free Footie provides free shin guards, soccer socks, shorts, jerseys, balls, transportation to and from games and coaching courses for the teachers and school staff who volunteer. Accredited referees from the wider Edmonton soccer community also volunteer their time to not only keep the games moving and teach the rules, but also act as on-field coaches to give kids second and third tries. In 2014, the Edmonton District Soccer Association is helping ensure there are referees at all Free Footie games. Run entirely by volunteers, the league has grown to 32 teams in five years, allowing 960 kids to play the game in 2014. "We want to make sure all the kids who want to play, can play," said Adams. In order to include as many kids as possible, when there are limits on how many new teams can be added each year, team sizes have been increased to 30 players this year. With such large team sizes, the players are spending half the game on the field and the other half in skills training sessions with players on the opposing team. The sessions are designed by the Alberta Soccer Association and are run by coaches and players from King's University College Eagles, the University of Alberta Pandas and Edmonton FC. While aiming to expand to meet the need in the community, Adams is also focusing on bringing the beautiful game to struggling neighbourhoods. This year, all the games in the Central division will take place at Giovanni Caboto Park in McCauley, with Edmonton Transit Service offering up chartered buses to get the players from their schools to the game. These chartered buses will also mimic the regular bus route, so that the players can learn how to navigate local transit into the neighbourhood. This will encourage players to access other programming in the area such as the Boys and Girls Club next to the park. "Our games have this huge impact on neighbourhoods," said Adams. "It's kids starting to take pride in their neighbourhoods and people seeing kids on the field when they haven't seen anyone playing on those fields for decades." "It's making connections in these neighbourhoods," he added. "There are a lot of great soccer fields in Edmonton neighbourhoods that aren't being used and we're hoping to use soccer to change that. Putting these fields to positive use is a great way to prevent crime and create community pride." Free Footie also continues to build strong ties throughout the Edmonton soccer community. "There's a growing pool of people from the whole soccer community coming under one umbrella to support our kids and make the game truly accessible," said Adams. Organizers are positive that these games will continue to have a positive impact on the players, the parks they play at and the city as a whole. REACH Edmonton has invested in Free Footie since 2011, along with fiscal sponsors including the Edmonton Police Foundation, ATB Financial, Look Master Builder and Pringle, Chivers, Sparks & Teskey Law Firm.