When some metro youth soccer teams switched to video-conference training sessions during the coronavirus pandemic, they found an unexpected new teammate on-screen.
Minnesota United players Michael Boxall, Mason Toye, Chase Gasper and Jacori Hayes used the occasions to drop in on calls as secret, special guests to offer inspiration, advice and answer young players’ many questions.
“This is the time of the Zoom, I guess,” Toye said, referring to a videoconferencing app that has, well, zoomed in popularity during the pandemic. “I’ve FaceTimed, but I don’t think I’d ever done a Zoom call before. I don’t have the whole thing down yet.”
While Toye and his teammates wait for their suspended season to resume, Hayes told the St. Croix 03 soccer team to “pursue your dreams.” He cited the 1988 novel “The Alchemist” by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho that’s a cosmic self-help book of sorts about following your heart.
“As long as you work as hard as you can to pursue your dreams, you’ll never be upset,” said Hayes, a midfielder acquired in a winter trade with Dallas. “If it doesn’t work out, you know you gave it your all to make it happen.”
Hayes has picked up his gear so he’ll be ready when the Loons’ training plan is hopefully approved by the governor’s office and state health officials. Nine MLS teams began individual player workouts — the first step back toward full team training and games — on their facility’s outdoor fields on Wednesday and Thursday.
Until state officials give the OK, Hayes and roommate/teammate James Musa go to a nearby field to run and get some touches.
Gasper has done two Zoom calls with youth teams. One was with the renowned Saint Paul Blackhawks and its 2008 “Black” boys’ team made up of players born in that year. The other was with an Ohio team.
He answered questions about his favorite soccer club worldwide (Real Madrid), the player after whom he models his game (Liverpool FC left back Andrew Robertson) and favorite food (pizza), among many others.
“They’re so much fun to do,” said Gasper, a second-year pro raised in Maryland who became friendly in his youth with D.C. United players Josh Gros and Bill Hamid. “I remember when I was in all those kids’ shoes — 10, 12 years old. Every chance I got to go to a professional game or meet a player who gave me an autograph, that meant the world to me.”
He also was asked if his MLS team will play again this season.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Gasper said. “I think we will.”
Winners of their USA Cup age group last summer, the Blackhawks’ Black team gathered last week in their respective backyards for what each player thought would be a virtual 30-minute training session. Unable to practice with each other, they’ve taken to training together but apart while their coach led a Zoom call that included technical individual ball skills.
More importantly, the sessions allow young players who in normal times train three times a week together to see one another again, if only by video.
“This is a pretty close team,” Blackhawks 2008 Black coach Brian Catrine said, “and we’re all in this together.”
This time, there was a surprise when Gasper’s face appeared on the grid that shows everyone on the call.
“This one was a little different,” Catrine said. “Chase had a genuine connection. He made it personal. Our kids are thirsty to learn. They really do miss the playing and the engagement with each other. They’re looking for something to be excited about and engaged with.”
Together on that screen grid, they each showed Gasper their goal-celebration dances, including midfielder Graham Johnson’s mimed shooting of an aimed arrow with a bow.
They also asked about a Loons’ goal celebration that rages with this controversy: Who gets credit for Toye’s maracas dance inspired by Latin music played by teammates in the locker room last season?
“It’s not a controversy at all,” Gasper said. “It’s Mason’s. I don’t know how it got brought up, but he scored a goal one night and he busted out the maracas. I was a little let down because he didn’t wait for me.”
Toye doesn’t claim it for his own: “It was not my idea, it was Chase’s. It was supposed to be a joint celebration, me and him. It’s tough because he’s usually so far back down the field. But he’s the originator.”