Recent stories run by CBS and other news organizations about Team Zaryen, a Haitian amputee soccer team made up of individuals injured during the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, have brought to the forefront a version of soccer that has been around since 1980.
Amputee soccer was created by Don Bennett, an amputee living in Seattle. The story goes that while walking to his car a basketball came rolling down a driveway towards Bennett. Instead of waiting for the kid playing with the ball to come and pick it up, Bennett raised himself up on his crutches and kicked the ball back. A few years later the first amputee soccer team was created under the Seattle Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association. The sport did not spread far beyond the Seattle area until 1997 when an amputee soccer clinic in Philadelphia lead to the creation of another competitive team.
That initial spread of the sport sparked the creation of the American Amputee Soccer Association (AASA) a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of social interactivity, self-esteem, and self-confidence among amputees of all ages through recreational and competitive amputee soccer programs.
The current Vice-President of the AASA is Minnesota native Eric Westover who joined the organization in 2006 as a player on the US Amputee National Soccer Team. Eric lost his right arm in 2004 due to a nerve injury and Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy/Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (RSD/CRPS II). Two years later his was contacted by the AASA. “They recruited me to be a goalie because I had played goalie in hockey my whole career, from the time I was six all the way through high school.” Eric also played soccer when it wasn’t hockey season, but at a different position. “I didn’t play goalie in soccer because my legs were too long and my coaches wouldn’t let me. So they made me play sweeper.”
Later that year Eric and the rest of the national team conducted a clinic in Philadelphia, but the organization remained dormant until earlier in 2011 when the Haitian soccer team began planning its tour of the US. The two teams partnered up with Walter Reed Naval Hospital and DC United and conducted three days of clinics at United’s practices fields. “We had 15 to 20 Wounded Warriors that came out that either had played soccer and wanted to play again or hadn’t and wanted to learn.” During the clinics the soldiers were put on forearm crutches and practiced dribbling and shooting. On the third day players from the Haitian and US teams and participants from Wounded Warriors combined into two teams for a scrimmage to give the soldiers a feel for the pace of the game.
Eric with DC United’s Bill Hamid
Since the clinics at Walter Reed, the AASA has started to get more active and is currently making contact with teams from the MLS, NASL, and USL Pro to set up sponsored clinics for kids and wounded veterans across the US. “We’ve gotten some real good feedback. We’re forming a partnership with the American Outlaws to give free soccer balls to kids at clinics.” Plans are already in the works for the Charleston Battery and the Carolina RailHawks to host clinics. Eric is also working with the NSC Minnesota Stars to hold clinics and a scrimmage with the full US team during the Schwann’s USA Cup this summer. The AASA is hoping to use these clinics to not only inform people about the existence of the sport, but also to plant seeds. “We’re trying to let people know we’re out there. Yeah we play, but we really want to leave some teams across the nation.” The AASA is also hoping to provide a level of competitive play by taking steps to become affiliated with the US Adult Soccer Association.
By establishing a competitive aspect to the sport, the AASA will be able to improve the number of participants and the quality of the US Amputee National team, which has been participating in international play since 1998 when the US participated in their first Amputee Soccer World Cup/Championship. The tournament featured teams from Brazil, Georgia, Russia, England and Uzbekistan. The tournament was held every year with different host countries (the US hosted the 2000 tournament) and eventually switched to every two years after 2003. In past tournaments the US has not excelled in performance or attendance, but that is something Eric and the current squad is working to remedy. “We haven’t had that strong of a program and that is what we’re focusing on now: to really build a good program.”
Although they are called a national team, the US Amputee soccer team is not yet an affiliate of the US Soccer Federation. The AASA has been involved with the USSF as part of the Disability Committee, but has not applied to the Federation, though they are planning to do so. Eric hopes that an affiliation with the USSF will allow the team to find more sponsors that will allow the team to travel more for competitions and training. “We have a bunch of guys on the west coast and we have 6 or 7 east coasters. What we’re doing is, because we all separated, we train on our own while we’re at home.” Getting the whole team together has been difficult in the past and prior to the Walter Reed scrimmage against Team Zaryen the team was only able to practice together 45 min beforehand.
The US scrimmaging Team Zaryen
Moving forward, sponsorships will allow the team to meet for camps prior to competitions which includes a friendly against Mexico set for the end of March. In April the team will be in Dallas for two games against the Haitian National Team during the Panda Cup and the Dallas Cup. The international games will show how committed to the game the Eric and the rest of the US players are. ”It’s just as fast as two-legged soccer, it’s just as tough and we’re just as competitive.” But all the training and friendlies have been planned to prepare the team for this summer’s World Cup, a tournament that the team may have to skip.
The US was ready to make its return to the world stage at the 2012 World Cup in Japan, but due to last year’s earthquakes and tsunamis, Japan can no longer hold the tournament. The 2012 tournament was then offered to the hosts in 2014, Iran, who accepted. This turn of events will probably force the US to delay their World Cup hopes, but not crush them. “We would be disappointed,” admitted Eric, “but there would be some pros as well. It would give us another couple of years to develop the team, practice and find more people, but of course we all want to go to the big dance.” Things may change, however, in the upcoming months. It seems that other countries may not go to Iran so the AASA is looking for a substitute competition. “For whoever doesn’t go to the 2012 World Cup, we’re going to try to set up a Caribbean tournament so that the teams that don’t go to the World Cup can still get together and play.”
This upcoming year will be a busy one for the AASA and the US Amputee Soccer team. You can keep up with news about upcoming clinics and friendlies on the US National Amputee Soccer Team’s Facebook page as well as the American Amputee Soccer Association website.