In January, just under three months into officially playing futsal, Sommer and Sydnie, along with their futsal team representing Alabama, competed in the South Atlantic Championships. While the team’s record was 1 win and 2 losses, falling short of reaching the national finals, this major tournament experience played a crucial role in enhancing Sommer and Sydnie’s futsal skills and boosting their confidence, as well as helping them define their self-positioning in the sport.
In February, Sommer and Sydnie made their debut in the Alabama state team through the United States Olympic Development Program. They traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, representing the state team in three matches at the state games. Through the challenges of this competition, Sydnie gained confidence in her right-back position, while Sommer explored a new role as a defensive midfielder for the first time. Competing alongside high-level teammates and opponents, these three intense matches significantly contributed to their experience and ability to read the game. Sommer and Sydnie played a pivotal role in the state team’s achievement of 2 wins and 1 loss.
In March, Sommer and Sydnie’s club team, participating in the national DP League for the first time, attended the national tournament DPL Summit held in Tampa, Florida. This marked Sommer and Sydnie’s initial encounter with formidable teams from states beyond the Southeast region. Despite ending with a record of 2 losses and 1 win, the team demonstrated resilience against tough opponents. In a match where they found themselves trailing 0-3, they mounted a comeback, scoring three consecutive goals and eventually securing victory in a penalty shootout. This spirited performance fueled the team’s determination and laid the groundwork for a successful journey into the national finals. In this game, Sommer made a significant contribution with a sublime long-range goal, leveling the score in spectacular fashion.
In April, as the league reached its final stages, after a season of determined effort, we secured a record of 2 losses, 3 draws, and the rest victories. With one foot already in the national finals, we faced the toughest opponent on their home turf in North Carolina, the top-ranked Triangle United. Surprisingly, our team, trailing 0-1, equalized through Sydnie and took the lead before the halftime whistle. The second half saw the team resiliently defending, denying the opponents any scoring opportunities. In the end, we secured a hard-fought 3 points in a nail-biting match, clinching the ticket to the national finals against all odds from an opponent considered least likely to be defeated.
In May, we welcomed the USYF Birmingham regional ID. Keith Tozer, a former U.S. futsal national team player and head of youth development scouting, personally came to Birmingham to identify talent. Sommer and Sydnie, with less than half a year of experience in futsal, initially attended this selection camp just to experience the regional ID. However, to our surprise, after the two-day camp, Sommer stood out and was recommended by Coach Tozer to participate in the national ID scheduled for July in Kansas City. If selected, there is a chance for her to be part of the USYF international team.
In early June, as the scorching summer began, Sommer and Sydnie were recommended by the Alabama State Soccer Association for the second consecutive year to participate in the South Intra-Regional Combine Elite Player Training Camp, involving both training and matches. As two of the 13 recommended players from Alabama, Sommer and Sydnie had the opportunity to join outstanding players from other states for a three-day session of training and matches. Unlike the previous year, this time Sommer scored two goals and provided an assist in the matches, while Sydnie, relying on tenacious defense, helped the team keep a clean sheet against formidable opponents, marking a significant improvement from their previous participation.
At the end of June, the team traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, for the national finals. Prior to the competition, the team’s key player, Abbie Jin, departed, leaving the team with no time to adapt to a new playing style. The outcome was predictably bitter. In the first match against the eventual champions, our team conceded a goal in less than 30 seconds, resulting in a devastating 0-7 defeat. In the second match, our team changed tactics and managed a 1-1 draw against the opponents from Colorado. However, in the third match, they faced a strong team from California and lost 0-3.
Abbie Jin’s role went beyond contributing to the attacking front; she crucially alleviated defensive pressure. It must be acknowledged that with or without her, the team’s strength was like night and day. No one could replace her impact. Losing the opportunity to compete and learn alongside such an outstanding teammate was a significant setback for Sommer and Sydnie.
In early July, we embarked on a 10-hour drive to Kansas City, Kansas, to participate in the USYF national ID. Sommer aimed to compete with outstanding players selected from across the country for the opportunity to represent the international youth team. Following a grueling week of intense training, challenging matches, and assessments of her understanding of futsal tactics, Sommer emerged successfully, securing a spot in the final 12-player roster. In December of this year, she will travel to Nantes and Paris in France to represent the United States in a ten-day training and competition event as part of the international youth team. Sommer achieved a remarkable leap from the club team to the state team and now to the international team in just half a year.
Upon returning from Kansas City, to stay competitive during the lengthy summer break, Sommer and Sydnie, along with their close friends, formed a team and participated in three 3v3 soccer tournaments held around Birmingham area. Recognizing the limited skill level of same-age opponents within the area, they deliberately entered the high school age group competitions. To everyone’s surprise, they clinched the championship in all three high school age group tournaments they entered. Notably, the third tournament served as the Southeast region’s 3v3 finals. Securing the championship in this decisive event would guarantee a direct entry to the national finals.
In the end, with an undefeated record, they successfully overcame all challenges, defeating high school opponents who were 1 to 4 years older in the decisive match. This victory earned them the coveted ticket to the national finals.
As August arrived, both club and school soccer were in their offseason, with a hiatus before the start of the new season. Despite the break, Sommer and Sydnie, along with their close friends, took the initiative to engage in voluntary soccer training. While enjoying their time off, they recognized the importance of staying active and preparing for the upcoming challenges of the new season, especially with the added difficulty of facing matches without key players who were part of the team in the previous season.
By the end of August, after three preseason matches, it became evident that the team experienced a significant decline in both offensive and defensive capabilities following the departure of Abbie Jin. The true impact of losing a star player was starkly revealed at this moment. The coach opted for a strategy of long passes and lofted balls, reducing the reliance on midfield players to carry the ball into the attacking third. The previous dominance of Abbie Jin in the midfield had led to a significant dependency on her by the surrounding players, who now struggled without her presence. Players were indulged and overlooked for their ball-carrying abilities, resulting in a lack of initiative to clear the ball from the back and a hesitancy to control the ball under pressure, leading to a sharp increase in mistakes and a severe decline in the team’s overall performance.
In September, some parents, unaware of the severity of the issues, persuaded the coach to withdraw from a local tournament with lower competition level and instead opt for a higher-level tournament in Tennessee. The team played three matches in this new setting. While facing opponents of a higher caliber could have been beneficial for our development based on our performance in the first half of the year, the current problem lies in the fact that the team’s level has dropped to a point where they are evenly matched with local opponents of the same age group, whom they once looked down upon. Despite this, there was a reluctance to use these matches as an opportunity to develop new playing styles and have players rediscover suitable offensive patterns. Instead, there was an insistence on competing against stronger teams in a situation where the team’s strength was lacking, and the specific issues were unclear. As a result, the three matches held little value in terms of team cohesion, and they undermined the defensive confidence of the players, reducing the team’s defensive strategy to mere long-ball clearances from the defenders.
Originally, under pressure from some parents, the team was looking to schedule a friendly match against a high-level Girl’s Academy opponent, even if it meant traveling five hours one way. I’m relieved that it didn’t materialize because driving ten hours for a match that wouldn’t benefit the team would have been a disaster. The team’s current major issue is that many players, and even some parents, fail to recognize the significant impact on both offense and defense due to the departure of a key player. Many are unwilling to admit this reality. In fact, acknowledging others’ abilities and addressing one’s own shortcomings is a virtue. Each player’s performance is transparent to everyone, and there’s no need to artificially embellish with words.
In the subsequent five matches in October, the team experienced a narrow victory after being 3 goals down, benefiting from a gift from the opponent’s goalkeeper. The results included 2 draws and 2 losses, leading the team to lose its identity completely. In both attacking and defending, the team struggled to find effective methods. What’s infuriating is that, despite the team’s dismal performance, there is still an arrogant reluctance to participate in local “low-level” tournaments. If there were alternative competitions, not participating might be understandable. However, some parents would rather choose not to participate in any matches than use a few games against weaker opponents to adjust the formation and allow the players to regain confidence in ball possession in relatively low-pressure situations.
I’ve shared this much because the current playing style makes midfielders less essential in the team. Sommer and Sydnie, without the exceptional abilities of Abbie Jin, receive increasingly less practical training in real matches, making each game a torment. At the same time, Abbie Jin, who joined the ECNL team Alabama FC, continues to play a pivotal role in her new team, showcasing her outstanding abilities by scoring or assisting in almost every match. Her impact on the game is crucial. If more people in our team understood and appreciated others’ strengths, perhaps Abbie Jin wouldn’t have left.
Certainly, there were some positive moments in October as well. In a friendly match against a lower-age team from our club, Sommer scored a goal and provided an assist for Sydnie’s headed goal. Following this, Sommer and Sydnie had the opportunity to be loaned back to their old team for a match in the Alabama state league, where they contributed to a 5-0 victory. All the goals were linked to Sommer and Sydnie.
What brought the most joy, however, was the opportunity to witness the legendary soccer star Messi in action live.
As November arrived, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in training with the North Carolina DPL team Triangle United, experiencing the daily training routine of the team that reached the national semifinals last year and is considered the strongest team in our Southeast region. Over the course of two days, the disparity became vividly apparent. Their training intensity and players’ ability to read the game were on a level that our team couldn’t match. What’s pleasing, however, is that Sommer and Sydnie were able to quickly integrate into this high-intensity competition. This is attributed to our regular extra-high-intensity private training sessions.
Taking advantage of the away game weekend in North Carolina, we managed to squeeze in a visit to Duke University’s campus. We also seized the opportunity to visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and watched a women’s soccer match. Whenever we visit a new city, we always make it a point to take Sommer and Sydnie to explore local college campuses. After all, compared to their extracurricular interest in soccer, academics are the primary focus. Getting into college is the minimum standard we’ve set for Sommer and Sydnie. After all, coming all the way from China and facing more challenging application processes than local Americans, we were able to secure scholarships at top universities, earn master’s and doctoral degrees, and eventually settle in the United States. It would be a pure failure if our children, whom we’ve raised, can’t even obtain an undergraduate degree.
Returning from North Carolina to Alabama during the Thanksgiving break, we swiftly headed south to participate in the National Finals of a 3v3Live soccer tournament. We earned the right to compete by securing the first-place spot in the high school age group of the Southeast region. Initially, we assumed that the high school-age opponents we would face in the national finals would be less challenging, but we quickly realized that there’s always someone better. Facing formidable opponents, we ended the tournament with a disappointing record of six losses, including two matches that were prematurely concluded due to a goal difference exceeding ten. Despite this, our efforts over the summer and the points advantage earned through taking on more formidable older opponents allowed us to advance directly to the final in the 2008 age group. We emerged as the national runners-up in the 2008 age group, but this achievement is not something to be overly proud of.
In the blink of an eye, December has arrived. Early in the month, Sommer and Sydnie participated in the statewide middle school math competition. Sommer secured the first position statewide, while Sydnie claimed the third position. This month is dedicated to futsal for us, with preparations underway for the upcoming regional finals. The most exciting news is Sommer’s opportunity to be selected for the USYF international team. She will embark on an unforgettable European journey to France, training and competing in Nantes and Paris. We will document our trip to France and look forward to witnessing the Trophée des Champions final between Paris Saint-Germain and Toulouse FC at the Parc des Princes on January 3rd. Stay tuned!
Thank you for your support throughout the year for Sommer and Sydnie!