75 Years of Youth Soccer in New York

By Paul Gardner

They had a little bash out at Franklin Square on Friday. Franklin Square, that's just outside New York City, the beginnings of Nassau County. An area I don't visit too often.

Whatever, I went out to this affair. Because, despite the Nassau County location, I considered this very definitely a New York City affair. It marked the 75th anniversary of the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League. Think about that. An American youth soccer league ... 75 years old! Founded in 1933, before most Americans had any idea what the sport was all about, way before the term soccer mom was ever heard.

Founded by mostly German immigrants in Queens. And it's survived all those years. It now has tradition, it has history, it even has its own share of dignity. And it has inspired tremendous loyalty over the years.

No, this wasn't a "little bash" -- I was joking. There must have been some 300 people in the place, oldsters, middle-agesters and youngsters and -- well, all sorts, every sort. With that one thing in common. Soccer people, all of them. And that other thing -- they're all New Yorkers, whether they know it or not. Indeed, whether they like it or not.

And, I'd guess, most of them are volunteers who give their time freely to the sport. Before the deafening music started, when I was still able to think about things, I recalled that last year there was another soccer event in New York City -- one of those $1,000-a-plate affairs, with David Beckham in attendance. I didn't go to that, I wasn't asked anyway. But I know that glitzy affair wasn't the real thing, the thing with soccer at its heart.

This was. Because the CJSL has never had any other aim or interest than what is now modishly called "youth development." Actually, there's a hint of older times, different times, in the league's very title. Back in 1933 they didn't know about youth soccer. They called it junior soccer.

If the CJSL were being founded today, I suppose it would have to get the word academy in there somewhere. Even though CJSL people don't use fancy terms like that, the CJSL has always been an academy, I suppose, without knowing it. It has always attracted the real soccer people, it has always paid attention to the kids -- and along the way it has produced top teams and some pretty good players, too.

One of the ceremonies the other night was to induct the new members into the CJSL Hall of Fame. They included two players who had played on CJSL teams -- Claudio Reyna and John Wolyniec. Like I said, some pretty good players. Claudio was there and received his honor with grace and simplicity. John was not there -- he's in Argentina with the Red Bulls -- but his mother stood in for him. I first met her years ago when she was a baffled soccer mom -- she confessed to me that she didn't think much of her son's wish to become a pro soccer player. A wonderful lady, still wondering when John is going to get a real job.

Damn! I've mentioned some names, and I didn't mean to do that, because there are simply too many worthy people who have been, and continue to be, involved in running the CJSL, or who are associated with the clubs that it includes.

People who know about being out on fields in the heat and in the snow, people who know about booking fields, about finding fields, about arranging schedules, about arranging transport, about pleading soccer's case with whoever gets in the way ... and all this for the kids. And they've been at it, quietly and tirelessly, for 75 years.

Nostalgia sets in. The world is changing. A gathering like that of Friday night -- will it be possible in, say, 20 years time? I hope so, but I suspect not. Change is at work. Junior soccer has become youth soccer, clubs are now academies, volunteers are replaced by paid coaches. There will be soccer gatherings in 20 years time, but not quite like this.

I'll break my vow one more time and mention a couple more names. No one's going to mind me citing George Donnelly because we all loved him, and he's dead now. George Donnelly, who did so much for his club Gjoa, and for the kids, and -- I think -- for the CJSL. Maybe I'm wrong there, because he was a cantankerous guy who could be a right pain in the ass.

Emil Cohill, as the CJSL's longtime secretary, had plenty of experience in dealing with George. For years the CJSL insisted on using goal-average as a tiebreaker, when the entire rest of the soccer world had switched to goal-difference. I asked Emil why they didn't make the change. "George won't hear of it," he replied. I brought it up with George and ran into a stone wall. Until one day I noticed that the change had been made. "How did you get that past George?" I asked Emil. "We snuck it through while George was in the toilet," he answered.

Emil, quite rightly was the first guy ever elected to the CJSL Hall of Fame. He is still the CJSL secretary, still the volunteer guy who does everything. The salt of the soccer earth, as far as I'm concerned. If we ever do arrive at the day when there are no more volunteer secretaries, no more Emil Cohills, I can only comment that the world -- not just the soccer part of it -- will be a much less agreeable place to live in.


6 comments about "75 Years of Youth Soccer in New York".
  1. Ron Newman, March 2, 2009 at 11:32 a.m.

    As usual Paul, a great story.
    It is great that these people are remembered.

  2. Fred Schoenfeld, March 2, 2009 at 11:56 a.m.


    Having been involved with Junior soccer from 1975 - 1990 with Blue Star in the Cosmopolitan Junior League, I really enjoyed your article about the dinner.
    I wish I had known about it because I certainly would have come to see all my old friends,

    I noticed that Metropolitan Oval is now a spiffy grass field. Inmy days we had dirt, broken glass and mud when it rained. But it was wonderful


    Fred Schoenfeld

  3. , March 2, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.


    Any chance you remember a youth soccer tour to Brazil back in the mid '80's with teams from Texas, Virginia, and NJ/NY? If so, how about a couple of kids from Dallas, Chris and Adam??? We would love to connect with you if at all possible.


    Adam VanDerven,

  4. Gabriel Nigrin, March 2, 2009 at 6:24 p.m.

    Hello Paul:

    I enjoyed reading your impressions of the 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League.

    They reflect the tone of my open letter to Franco Legovich (who was inducted into the CJSL Hall of Fame at this year's celebration) that you can read on the website of the Silver Lake Soccer Club under DOC’s Corner.

    My son Albert, who inspired me to found the Silver Lake Soccer Club in 1971 when he was only 13 years old, commented that the letter to Franco was sad and gloomy. I replied to him that for us, the older generation, it is difficult to accept the way soccer is introduced these days to the young and developing players. What made the volunteering spirit unique was that the reward of witnessing results in youngsters could not be compared to monetary renumeration.

    As you well said, the CJSL is an old institution that still reflects the volunteering spirit that guides its members to this day. I was and still am a strong supporter of this league where I saw my three sons as well as countless youngsters develop as good soccer players and good people.

    I am thankful of being able to witness the warm and joyous celebration of this occasion and hope to see the CJSL always at the frontline of youth development in New York City.

    Gabriel A. Nigrin,20M.D.
    Founder and Honorary Member
    Silver Lake Soccer Club
    Hall of Fame CJSL - 2003
    Hall of Fame ENYYSA - 2006

  5. Jamie Clary, March 3, 2009 at 8:43 a.m.

    Good article. Way too often we overlook the importance of youth in soccer.

    As was the case then, most people who invested money in soccer were more interested in making money than building the game. Meanwhile, the people and organizations involved in building the game rarely have had enough money to do it. When the money side announced its goals for the future of the American Soccer League in 1954 they included new stadiums, increased attendance, better fields, televised games, a published brochure, and sponsorship of foreign team tours. Not a word about youth programs. With 14 years of hindsight, Robert Guelker, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, gave his six goals. Objective number three was a larger office and more staff for the USSF.

    Fortunately that has changed at the national level, and more investors are looking long-term by developing the youth side of our game.

  6. Stephen Singer, March 8, 2009 at 5:48 p.m.

    Vintage Gardner. But I am sorry that he didn't mention lots and lots of names. I, much to Mr. Gardner's great chagrin, love lists. Still, vintage Gardner is vintage indeed.

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