Passionate Young Players Hope to Play Professional Soccer One Day

ELK GROVE -- The lights are bright, the kicks are strong and the breeze is frigid as parents jam their hands deep into coats pockets and watch their young ones heat up a frosty field.

"My favorite part of the game is definitely when I'm in a 1-v-1 situation because I can defend, and I can win the ball, and I can make plays," Jack Ritchie said.

He's 11.

"I think the footwork is my favorite, because like, you just move at a fast pace. I try to move faster with the ball than I do running," said 11-year-old Jalen Scott, a central attacking midfielder.

That's a peek at some of the passion that united 1 billion people worldwide to watch the last World Cup finals.

Some of the boys on Elk Grove's Franklin Field were just 8 back when Germany bested Argentina, but most were already four years into their soccer careers.

It's the kind of intimate relationship with the sport that's in Coach Andrew Donnery's muscle memory even though it took his family a little while to catch up.

"My mother never watched me play till I was 32,"he said.

"So I'm coming off and my mom says, 'you're not bad are you?' yeah."

And that was after Donnery had already played professionally for years on the international stage.

While his sound maybe still be all English Premier League, what's in Coach Donnery's sights is all USDA -- America's other USDA -- the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

"70 percent of kids quit by the age of 14," he said.

The elite club he runs, tied to the country's national team, offers kids the chance to train with specially licensed coaches in a no-score environment.

It's designed to build the skills needed on the fields of major league soccer.

And with the Sac Republic FC possibly a half-step away from the MLS, many of the 6,000 kids playing in the Elk Grove Soccer Club see the steps to their biggest dream shrinking.

"I'd try to make the team, 'cause I want to play at that level," said Scott.

What if Jack Ritchie could play for the Sac Republic?

"That would be absolutely amazing," he said.

That kind of interest -- right on the edge of almost hometown professional possibility -- has helped club numbers here grow by 10 to 15 percent in just the last year.


"Of all the people who are playing soccer in this world, 0.04 percent make professional soccer players," explained Donnery.

Parents know the odds, but are content to spend three nights a week helping their kids chase the next chapter -- albeit in a 20,000-seat stadium or not.

"He was really kind of shy, growing up, first five to six years, and now out here on the soccer field it really boosted his confidence," said Jack's father, Matthew Ritchie.

For the undaunted, they're looking at the legends like Paulo Dybala, eager to add their name to the list.

"People say, some people say, that he plays like me," Scott said with a big smile lighting up his face.