For almost as long as she’s been in the United States, Miracle has had soccer.
The field in Clarkston, Georgia, where she used to play isn’t much. There are big patches of hard, dry dirt and thin, brown grass, a wooden picket fence with slats that have been knocked out by errant soccer balls.
Clarkston is a city defined by its refugee population, Miracle among them. For her and hundreds of other children who play in Clarkston, the field was a sanctuary, a place where everything else used to fall away. Miracle, 16, started playing in fifth grade, not long after her family arrived as refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now she dreams of playing in college, like her older brother.
Soccer was a “stress reliever,” she said. A way to make friends.
But like everything else, Miracle’s league was shut down last month, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. She spends her days inside her house; sometimes she can kick a ball against the garage, but her dad works nights and sleeps during the day. Miracle and her siblings have to be quiet.
Without soccer, Miracle said, “I just feel like I’m not me.”
“Being in the house all the time, this is not what I’m used to. I feel like a different person.”
Across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has meant losing big things: lives, jobs, health. But it has also stolen a generation of children away from their schools, clubs, activities, friends, and all the normal things that are a part of growing up.
For children who play and rely on sports, the coronavirus shutdown has meant another, sometimes wrenching, loss: of a stabilizing force, a coping mechanism, a social outlet. Even, in some circumstances, what might be a chance to go to college.
College recruiting, which reaches its apex in the spring, has been upended entirely by the coronavirus, with all in-person visits canceled. Young players across the country have lost their most important chances to prove themselves to college coaches: end-of-season high school basketball tournaments, track meets, entire seasons of baseball and softball.
For many young soccer players, the timing is likely to feel cruel, coming just before some of the year’s biggest, most important tournaments in club soccer, chances for players to be seen by the college coaches who swarm the showcases.
It’s not the most elite young soccer players who are likely to be impacted by the coronavirus shutdown, said Travis Clark, a college soccer recruiting expert for the website TopDrawerSoccer. Most of them committed long ago to top Division 1 programs, sometimes as early as middle school.
But there is a much smaller window, sometimes just a few months, for players to be noticed by smaller, lower-division schools, many of which still offer athletic scholarships.
“The impact is going to be focused on lower-division programs like Division 2 and 3 and junior colleges, which are later in the process,” Clark said.
Right now, though, the anxiety of questions about college sports is outweighed for many young people by a simpler, more visceral reality: losing the ability to do the thing they loved most.
Gloria Chicas can see the sadness etched in her sons’ faces.
Gloria isn’t able to work her housekeeping job because of the outbreak, and her husband, Luis, isn’t working right now either. But losing soccer has broken her boys’ hearts.
Both Axel, 15, and Chris, 12, are elite players. A nonprofit called Open Goal Project, dedicated to counteracting the “pay-to-play” system that has left American soccer open mostly to wealthy children, pays for their membership in a top-tier local club.
In the mornings, Axel leaves the family’s apartment in Washington, DC, to exercise outside, trying to hold onto some of the strides he had been hoping to make in his soccer season.
Chris has to stay behind. He has asthma, and Gloria is afraid for him, so she keeps him inside.
“It’s very bad, very bad,” Chris said. “I feel like I’m in jail, like I can never get out.”
More than anything, Chris says, he misses scoring. But he misses his friends too.
Axel, a first-year, dreams of playing soccer in college — he needs to get a scholarship, he thinks, to be able to go. Axel feels like he’s falling behind. This was the season he was supposed to play in the State Cup, to catch the eyes of college recruiters.
Other young soccer players have backyards and fields, even private coaches, to help them stay in shape. The Chicas boys have neither. At first, after the shutdown, Axel used to take his ball with him in the mornings, go to the city-owned field by their house and try to play alone. Now those fields are shut down too.
So he and Chris play inside, on a square of wooden floor just outside the kitchen. Behind them is a shelf that displays family photos, but also trophies and thick clusters of soccer medals, a blown-up photo of a soccer game.
They do 2-foot-long passes in their stockinged feet, switching between left and right. They tap the soles of their feet on the top of the ball. Juggling the ball is mostly impossible in the small space, so Chris has been juggling a roll of toilet paper, a trend that’s spread among pro players in recent weeks on social media.
Axel feels the pain of missing soccer daily.
“It’s the thing I look forward to the most,” he said. “All of the emotions go away when I’m playing soccer.”
Mick Muhlfriedel is the president of the Downtown Los Angeles Soccer Club, which draws players from underserved communities across the city, most of them Latino. He coaches a team of close-knit girls who are mostly in their junior years of high school, the most important time for players who want scholarships.
His girls had been preparing for a showcase in Las Vegas, one of their best chances for scholarships, with coaches lined up to come see their games. That was canceled.
“They were counting on this exposure to get on coaches’ radar,” Muhlfriedel said. “There aren’t a lot of tournaments like that. And for a lot of our girls, this is their ticket to college, is their soccer ability. They might not have a lot of other opportunities.”
“It’s very important for me to get looked at,” said Lucy Erazo, one of the team’s captains. “My parents are not capable of helping me out, as much as they want to — they just can’t. So I want to continue playing soccer. For me, I realized I’m learning to be responsible for my own future, and the only way to get into a good college might be because of soccer.”
At Soccer in the Streets in Georgia, where Miracle plays, most players come from war-torn countries or have parents who are themselves refugees, said Abdul Bangura, who runs the Clarkston program.
“A lot of them have violence in their pasts, so soccer is like a therapy for them,” Bangura said. “It encourages them to stay in school.”
Most of his players live in apartments, with few chances to go outside, and are instead stuck in their living rooms, Bangura said. They have parents who work in industries hit hard economically by the coronavirus, or in fields like health care, where they are away from home for long days. The club has tried to stay in touch with players, suggesting ways to exercise — push-ups and sit-ups, simple things like the toilet paper juggling challenge.
Bangura worries about the older players like Miracle, who might miss an important chance at a college scholarship. The club had been working with players to make highlight reels and contact coaches. But also, he worries about his 12-year-old boys. And his 16-year-old boys. And his other girls.
“I worry about all of them,” he said.
The organization got in touch with players and their families to ask what they need as the crisis goes on. It plans to start distributing it soon: cereal, bread, cans of food. And soccer balls.