By Peter Schwartz
» More Columns
Growing up in Glen Cove on Long Island, Mike Grella played soccer on some pretty rough surfaces. He played on uneven pitches, any available patch of grass and even some fields filled with rocks.
“It’s an easy place to roll your ankle or get injured,” recalls the Red Bulls forward. “I even remember playing on some concrete at times, and obviously that can be dangerous.”
Every kid who loves playing soccer should be able to play on a good field, but that isn’t always the case, especially on Long Island, one of the youth soccer hotbeds in the country. But thanks to the Red Bulls, along with the U.S. Soccer Foundation and BJ’s Wholesale Club, youth players in Valley Stream now have their field of dreams following the unveiling of two new mini-pitches on Thursday at Barrett Park.
The Red Bulls and the U.S. Soccer Foundation share a commitment to provide children with safe and accessible places to play the world’s most beautiful game in communities throughout the New York/New Jersey area. The objective is to provide a soccer environment that encourages unstructured play within local communities to support the continued growth of the game in North America.
“I love it,” said Red Bulls assistant coach Chris Armas, who joined Grella and other dignitaries at Thursday’s ceremony. “That community is going to bring those fields to life. To be part of the day and the ribbon cutting is awesome, especially being a local kid.”
Armas, a Brooklyn native, played college soccer at Adelphi University on Long Island and also was a star player for the Long Island Rough Riders of the USISL in 1994 and ’95 before he was selected by the Los Angeles Galaxy in the inaugural Major League Soccer draft in 1996.
Before the 1998 season, Armas was traded to the expansion Chicago Fire and helped lead them to the MLS Cup title in their inaugural season.
A former member of the U.S. national team, Armas retired in 2007 after 12 MLS seasons and went on to a coaching career with the Chicago Fire before returning to Long Island with his family in 2011 to be the head coach of the Adelphi women’s team.
Armas believes that the new fields in Valley Stream can only help the young players perform.
“It’s just a nice vibe when you go to a place that aesthetically looks nice, plays nice and is safe,” said Armas, the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year in 2000.
Armas and Grella served as celebrity coaches at the event with local Valley Stream boys and girls taking part in a ceremonial first kick with the invited guests before taking part in the first match on the new fields. Without the help of the Red Bulls and their partners, these kids might be playing on fields that are not in the greatest shape.
Or they might not be playing at all.
“It’s great to see that the Red Bulls are able to do something like that with all the partnerships involved,” said Grella, who has scored six goals this season. “Having a field donated is a dream come true for kids.”
While the Red Bulls are doing their part to make dreams come true for youth players, they are also trying to fulfill their own dream of winning an MLS Cup. Heading into Sunday’s regular season home finale against Columbus, the Red Bulls are tied with NYCFC atop the Eastern Conference but hold the tiebreaker edge based on goal differential.
They are on a 14-game unbeaten streak, but with two games to go in the regular season, the Red Bulls still have some work to do before the playoffs start, and that includes going after three big points Sunday against the Crew.
“This is the biggest game of the season for us,” Grella said. “We have to keep that run going, lock up a top-two spot and also win the East. It will be a very difficult game but one that we’ll be fully prepared for mentally and physically.”
The Red Bulls haven’t lost a game since a 2-0 setback to NYCFC on July 3, but their recent run has not been without some painful moments. There were five games when the Red Bulls had to settle for draws after letting two-goal second-half leads slip away.
Despite those bumps in the road, the Red Bulls are still atop the East, and they’re battle-tested for the postseason.
“We’ve been through some new challenges, which is great because we think we’re better for it,” Armas said. “As a coach, this is what you love. You love your team to be in meaningful games this time of year with a real chance and a real belief that we can go far.”
As the Red Bulls progress toward the playoffs and a potential run at a championship, there are youngsters all over the area who continue to have fun learning and playing the game of soccer. It’s a lot more fun to play on a nice field, so the kids in Valley Stream now have something to smile about with two brand new mini-pitches thanks to the Red Bulls and their partners.
But those fields are more than just knocking the ball around the pitch.
“It’s a place to go play, it’s a place to make friends, it’s a place to learn some pretty good values that soccer can teach you, and it’s just great for everyone all around,” Grella said. “To have a place that they can be safe and where they can really enjoy the game is fantastic.”
It’s appropriate that the Red Bulls are doing such wonderful work in helping build fields for kids all over the New York/New Jersey area. Given that they play on arguably the best pitch in the country at Red Bull Arena, the Red Bulls certainly know what it’s like to have a field of dreams.
You can follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @MikeGrella10, @NewYorkRedBulls, and @ussoccerfndn.