SYCAMORE – Tim Balatsoukas wants to bring his love for soccer to the children of Sycamore.
The Canadian-born former professional soccer player started the Chicago Soccer Academy of Sycamore, a youth soccer club, in May. The academy offers competitive boys and girls teams, foot skills training, private and small group training, and summer camps.
Balatsoukas spoke with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton on the phone about starting the soccer club and how he learned to love the game.
Milton: Tell me about the Chicago Soccer Academy of Sycamore.
Balatsoukas: In May, I started a competitive soccer club that competes in the boys and the girls leagues in the state of Illinois and in the Chicagoland area. …We work with kids from the age of 4 all the way to high school-age. We’re focusing on the young ones. Right now, we have a junior academy that’s catered to 4- to 10-year-olds, the kids that are just starting out playing soccer. Most of them don’t want to travel too far, and they don’t actually travel anywhere. Everything is in Sycamore. They practice in Sycamore and they play games in Sycamore. We play intra-squad games against each other, giving them the chance to learn the fundamentals and to love the game. Not too many kids are playing soccer, and we’re trying to introduce them to the game. We try to get them to love the game first.
Milton: What leads to the love of the game?
Balatsoukas: It may sound funny, but I look at the 7, 8, or 9 year-olds, and they are better than I ever was. I think that that is due to the coaching that they are getting right now and the facilities that they have. They have better opportunities than I ever had. They have the full potential to go as far as they want. We look at some of these children, and we can tell that they can play at a high level somewhere in the world if we continue to teach them the game and culturize them – by going home and practicing on their own, by watching games on TV, by coming to practice knowing the names of players and professional teams, by wearing the jerseys and talking about it with their friends. It may be a big battle, especially since all of the other sports that are more dominant in the area.
Milton: Did this year’s World Cup spark an interest in soccer among American kids?
Balatsoukas: With the World Cup this year, you could see all these kids playing in the parks, kicking the soccer ball around. It’s gotten everyone excited about soccer. This was the best World Cup that the US has ever played. Competitive-wise, they were up there with some of the more dominant countries in the world. It showed that we can keep up with those countries. Many of these ex-professional players are coming home and teaching kids in the US about soccer, teaching them how to love the game.
Milton: Have you always played soccer?
Balatsoukas: Growing up in Canada, I played soccer. My coaches were first-generation immigrants that barely spoke English. Eventually, I followed the footsteps of my older brother, who played soccer in Greece. I traveled to Greece as well, and played on a team for six years. When that ended, I decided to get an education and come to the US. I received a soccer scholarship from Judson University. I came here to study and play soccer. …I knew from a young age of 10 or 11, when my brother played professionally in Europe, that I would follow that same path. Bobby Charlton, who was the coach of England in 1966 when they won the World Cup, was a friend of my coach, John Gallagher. He brought Charlton over to teach us fast footwork, which was critical to my development as a player.
Milton: Were you always a skilled soccer player?
Balatsoukas: Growing up, I wasn’t the best player, but I was one of the hardest working players. By practicing and working hard, I’d say that within a couple of years, I was eventually the best player on the team. At that point, I knew that if I put my mind to it, continued working hard, and did the best of my ability, nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goals. I feel as if it’s my duty, my calling in life, to make all of these kids better and to help them realize that they can achieve whatever they want. It’s not all about soccer. Our program is about being humble and respectful of others and the game. Our organization is geared towards people in all walks of life, boys and girls, kids that never played, and kids that play at a competitive level. We just want to show kids the game and to let them have fun.
Milton: Do you coach the club by yourself?
Balatsoukas: I have an assistant coach, Martin Khoshaba, who currently plays semi-pro on a team in Chicago.
Milton: How did you become a soccer coach?
Balatsoukas: I was thrown into coaching almost immediately. My coach asked me if I wanted to coach soccer, and I said absolutely. At first it was one day a week, then two days a week, then four days, then seven days. I kept on coaching, and then I decided to create a club of my own. I believe that we have the formula to get the kids playing and loving the game.
Milton: Is parental involvement important?
Balatsoukas: It is important to have parents that help positively motivate their children. Parents have to make sure that their children are enjoying it and are taking it seriously. But parents also have to watch so that the kids don’t burn out. Once kids see it as work, they are going to quit. Once they have pressure from their parents, they’re going to lose interest. They may not quit the day after their parents make a comment, but six months, a year down the road, when criticizing of their game is happening every weekend, they are eventually going to quit. We have a rule at the club that parents can’t coach on the sidelines or during games.
Milton: What do you teach the younger kids?
Balatsoukas: It’s all about the fundamentals with the younger ages. If you get to the kids at 5 to 7, they have a head start over the kids that start at 9 to 11. They can retain more at that age. You can spark that passion, and it’s much easier to do with younger kids than older ones. …After teaching some of the older ages, I thought, well, maybe they weren’t taught the proper way. I felt as though starting with the young ones, I could start them on the right track. Right now, I have some 7 or 8 year-old kids that are technically better than the 10 or 11-year-olds. You can teach kids at a very young age the proper way to play, while having fun at the same time. Some of the older kids weren’t cultured, they came to soccer and trained, but they went home and did other things and played other sports. Soccer was more of an extracurricular activity and wasn’t taken seriously. I think that we have the chance to culture these younger kids and have them take it more seriously than those that are older.
Milton: Why did you choose Sycamore?
Balatsoukas: I was working on various clubs in the Chicagoland area, and I realized that I had a dream and a vision. I saw that Sycamore had untapped potential and for the kids and the community to become involved in soccer. …In the city, there are so many clubs in a small space. I felt that it would be best to go somewhere where soccer is not as dominant. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself to create something and watch it grow. Sycamore is a nice community, a big enough community to support the game. I felt that this was the spot to move, build a company, and offer my services to these kids.
Milton: What makes your club different?
Balatsoukas: From what I know, there are a few clubs like this in the area, but smaller. So far, the school district, the park district, and the community have welcomed me with open arms. We’re competing with the main sports in the area, like football and baseball. All the sports complement each other and help each player grow as an athlete. No child should be subject to playing just one sport. They should play as many as they can while they are young and experimenting. With good people in the program, and while we have fun while teaching fundamentals, it can definitely catch on. We’re hoping that the word will spread about how we’re training and motivating the kids.
Milton: What does it mean to be a premier team?
Balatsoukas: A premier team doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be part of the best team, but that they will have a high level of coaching and training and that they will thrive from the positive culture that we are creating. …Each player may not be the best on the team, but they contribute to and have their role on the team. There are three things that we look at when the kids are really young: natural coordination, aggressiveness, and natural talent. If a child has one of those three, the other two we can develop.
Milton: Is that your ultimate goal of the club?
Balatsoukas: Our hope is to educate them about the culture of the sport and to get them to embrace it and love it. Once that happens, they are always going to play. Hopefully, one day, they will teach their kids about soccer. That’s how soccer’s going to grow. It all starts with the kids that we have now, the younger ages. …We tend to focus on the younger ages, developing them as much as we can. Then, we can develop them all the way to high school, to get them the ability to play soccer in high school. Potentially, they will be able to play college soccer. We dream of them playing for the US national team as well. That would be a nice dream to have them come back and have that accomplishment. That would be nice.