The field at Clinton Sports Park is covered in high grass.
The newly-budding white-tipped weeds smack your legs as you walk through them.
There are two soccer nets. The one on the near end of the field has a gaping hole in the top, so every time a player scores another must chase the ball before it rolls under a car in the parking lot.
But on this particular Tuesday in May, there was something unusual about the home of the Clinton Jets — a youth soccer program run by Steven Perry. There were blue banners lining the perimeter of the field. In the corner, there was a black tent with 18 equipment bags lined up under it and a row of shiny new soccer balls. Two blade-shaped flags were stuck into the ground and display the word Allstate.
So what was happening during this once-routine practice for the Jets' 12-and-under soccer team?
“I thought there was going to be a commercial here,” said 10-year-old Abdul Kargbo.
Instead, there was a celebration of sorts. Heralded former United States National Team goalkeeper Tony Meola, who was inducted into the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame on Wednesday prior to the friendly between the U.S. and Brazil at FedEx Field, made a guest appearance. As part of a youth clinic program, the Jets received new jerseys, warm-ups, shin guards, socks, soccer balls and tickets to the game.
“For me to see the look on those kids' faces, it's pretty neat,” Meola said.
Meola, who played in the World Cup in 1990 and 1994 and then in Major League Soccer from 1996-2006, surprised the team and was introduced by Perry roughly 20 minutes after practice began.
After Perry read his accolades aloud, Meola addressed the huddled group. He told them to dream big. He laid out the plan for the rest of the evening and asked if anyone was going to watch the U.S.-Brazil match on TV. A handful of the kids raised their hand. One said he was going. Little did they know they'd all be given tickets an hour later.
“Hopefully a lot of the kids learned something and appreciate the extra mile,” Perry said. “I'm glad they heard about us and we were willing to take the opportunity to let the kids benefit. A lot of the kids are new to soccer, so hopefully this will motivate them.”
Clinton's program is rapidly growing under Perry, in his second year as commissioner, and the girls' U-10 team will play in a championship game Saturday. With new jerseys and a plentiful supply of balls for the U-12 team, the excitement and energy should only increase.
“They got motivated,” Perry said. “They're definitely really excited.”
Midway through practice Meola held a penalty kick competition and gave away three prizes, all autographed by current U.S. National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard: a ball, a kit and a pair of gloves.
The goalkeepers took turns rotating in net, each time being reminded by Meola — who recorded 31 shutouts with the national team and won the MLS MVP award in 2000 — to keep their feet planted on the goal line.
After the signed ball was awarded to the winner of the girls' penalty kick competition and a uniform was given to the winner on the boys side, it was the goalkeepers' turn to battle for the gloves.
Kargbo, who earlier made a sprawling save to his right that drew a loud cheer from Meola, scored on his kick. The next player missed her opportunity, leaving it up to Hamza Kargbo, Abdul's 13-year-old brother, to send the session into another round.
One kid shouted out, “It doesn't matter, they're brothers,” but the stakes clearly were high. Hamza lined up, ran to the ball and stroked it. Wide right. Abdul ran around with his arms to the side mimicking airplane wings. Hamza put his hands on his head.
Meola high-fived the Hamzas and many others before the team was called to the black tent to open their gift bags. Meola emphasized the importance of continuing to build youth soccer at the grassroots level, rather than placing all the emphasis on the most elite players.
“I think sometimes we always talk about academy programs and all this stuff, we sometimes forget that those programs are one half of one percent of the kids in the country,” said Meola. “There are other kids who are going to play the game just to play it.”
The final surprise of the day for the Jets was a pair of tickets for each player to Wednesday's game. The kids weren't allowed to open the pouch of their bag with the tickets in it until all the bags were handed out. When one eager player started prying open the front pocket, Meola, who coaches a youth team in Toms River, N.J., spotted him.
“What are you doing over there?” he joked. “I've got kids of my own. I have eyes like a hawk.”
He joked with kids that he needed a new pair of socks and tickets to the game, briefly taking the items from eager players who handed them to him.
The team, naturally, was excited to receive the tickets and then dressed in their new blue uniforms for a photo. Before leaving, Perry addressed his players, thanking Meola one last time.
“And now that you've got these brand new jerseys,” Perry said, “it's time to get some sweat in them. One lap around the field, let's go, let's go, let's go.”