This past spring, when a strict lockdown was enforced to contain the spread of COVID-19, it led to a very specific disappointment in Alison Liebnitzky’s Southampton home, related to one subject: soccer.
Her three children—Ella, 13, Kylee, 10, and Connor, 7—had been immersed in the sport from a young age, starting with the recreational offerings from the Southampton Soccer Club, before transitioning to travel teams.
For the past seven years, they spent nearly every weekend in both the spring and fall traveling around Long Island, honing their skills, growing their love for the game, and reaping other less tangible benefits that Liebnitzky values as a parent — meeting and interacting with children from other towns, building friendships, and learning the value of hard work, win or lose.
So when the club was able to open up again this fall, with carefully planned COVID safety measures in place, it was thrilling for hundreds of kids across the East End like Ella, Kylee and Connor, who were eager to get back on the field with their teammates after months apart.
While it’s been a successful fall season so far for the club, the pandemic did take a toll, particularly as it relates to the club’s finances. According to Executive Director Andreas Lindberg, the cancellation of the spring season led to a roughly $16,000 loss of revenue for the club, removing what would have been a buffer of cash used for operational costs and to keep money in the scholarship fund, which has ensured that the club will never turn away a player because of financial hardship.
It’s been a particularly tough blow, as more people are relying on the scholarship fund than ever, thanks to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
On top of that, the club has long been hoping to purchase lights that can be used for night games and practices. The steady growth of the club over the years has not abated, and it experienced an even bigger boom than usual this fall due to the influx of families relocating to East End towns from New York City because of the pandemic. That means more players and more teams trying to divide practice and game time at a limited number of fields, with the same daylight hours. Access to high school fields with permanent lights, such as Southampton High School, has also been restricted this year because of the pandemic.
To address these challenges, there has been a call to supporters, parents, and other community members to contribute, if they’re able, to a GoFundMe account set up by the club, to help it recoup some of the money it needs to replenish its scholarship fund and get closer to its goal of purchasing lights.
Lindberg — who, in 2007 joined the club that was founded in 1997 by club President Tim Rumph — touted the impressive success it has seen since its founding, growing from a small, relatively unknown community club to one that ranks within the top 15 to 20 percent in terms of size and success among the 105 clubs participating in the Long Island Junior Soccer League.
“Little Southampton Town United has been able to develop maybe not into a powerhouse, but we’re competing with the best of the best,” he said. “And we’ve never had to turn away a player because of finances.”
The cost for the lights is $50,000, which Lindberg admitted is a lofty goal, but one he said is worth pursuing, considering what the club currently pays to rent lights every season. The club shells out anywhere from $12,000 to $14,000 per year to rent the lights, he said, which amounts to roughly three times the cost of purchasing lights over the course of 12 to 15 years, the average life of the of lights.
“The fall is when we need the lights the most,” Lindberg explained. “We have 30 travel teams with more than 500 players, and each team is up there at least three hours a week, and the latest we can go right now is 8 p.m.”
The loss of Southampton High School this year as a host field has exacerbated the issue, but Lindberg said even when the teams are able to play and practice under the permanent lights at the school’s turf field, (which also helps reduce wear and tear on the other grass fields used by the club), there is still a need for lights at the club’s other practice locations, most notably Downs Family Park in Southampton.
While the lights are an added feature that would improve the club’s ability to run games and practices smoothly, the need to replenish the scholarship fund and continue to provide access to the club for all children, regardless of their parents’ financial circumstances, remains a vital part of its mission, now more than ever, and the club has set a goal of $30,000 to that end.
Lindberg pointed out that there are currently several coaches and trainers in the club, guiding recreational and travel teams, who were themselves recipients of club scholarships when they were younger and are now giving back to the club that helped foster their love for the game.
The club includes players and families from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds, which makes it unique to many other clubs on Long Island, and Lindberg says that’s something to be celebrated. Lindberg also added that in a typical year, roughly 10 percent of the club’s makeup includes New York City residents. This year, that number is around 18 percent, he said, adding that participation from year-round residents has soared this year as well, and thus the need for more scholarship funds along with it.
“Sports are a great neutralizer,” he said. “Once kids put on that blue Southampton shirt, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. We have billionaires whose kids have joined the club, and then you have someone who hasn’t been able to pay their registration fee, but they’re hanging out like best friends. To me, that’s unreal. It’s such a small part of society where that happens, and I think that needs to be celebrated.”
Right now, players and parents are simply celebrating the fact that they’ve been back in action, appreciative more than ever of what the club means to their children in unprecedented times. Both Lindberg and Liebnitzky pointed out how vital the club has been for older athletes in particular, whose regular middle school and high school soccer seasons have been canceled, and who are only attending in-person school two days weekly, with only half of their peer group. For players looking to stay sharp and keep playing the sport they love, especially those who may be eying college opportunities, the chance to keep playing is a lifeline.
“There was truly a limited opportunity to be active, with friends and peers, in an organized, safe way until the end of August, beginning of September,” Liebnitzky said. “So I think the fact that they were given this outlet, the teams really hit the ground running.”
Liebnitzky added that there are multiple benefits for kids to getting back out on the field.
“It’s important for so many reasons,” she said. “In school, many of these kids are sedentary, in one classroom all day, confined to their seats, not able to do group work with peers because of guidelines the schools were forced to put in place, understandably so. My oldest daughter especially looks forward to the time with her friends, and the ability to practice, have fun and be social again.”
That’s the kind of feedback Lindberg is happy to hear, particularly as he’s devoted many hours sitting in on phone calls and zoom meetings working on plans to make it possible for the club’s vast number of players to compete safely. He’s been able to devote that time, in part, because of the cancellation of college sports, meaning his other job — as head coach of the Seton Hall University men’s soccer team — is demanding a bit less of his energy. It’s bittersweet, of course, and Lindberg remains optimistic that his Pirates team can be out on the college turf for a long delayed start to the season in the spring, but for now, he’s glad to devote that extra time to the club he’s championed and remained committed to for more than a decade.
“I’m on the field now five days a week, where typically in the fall I’m only there two or three days a week,” he said. “A few people have been thanking us for working through this pandemic and making it happen for the kids. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting back out on the field and, more importantly, staying on the field.”