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East Coast F.C. makes return to pitch with 70 players

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The temperature was already almost 90 degrees early Monday morning as families dropped off their sons and daughters at Seaford’s Cuomo Field for a training session with the East Coast Football Club, a soccer organization founded in 2016 and mostly comprising players from Wantagh, Seaford and the surrounding South Shore hamlets.

This was the first day the club was allowed to have players on the field without masks, according to rules laid out by the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association. It was also the first day that programs were allowed to hold intrasquad scrimmages.

“Before this, we had to do individual-based training, which we were allowed to start on July 1,” explained ECFC cofounder Jerome Barberio, 48, of Wantagh. “When the pandemic hit, there was a fear, and a huge initial disappointment.”

The relatively new Long Island soccer club expanded quickly, to more than 350 players in late January. Players were practicing at various indoor locations, as the boys’ and girls’ teams prepared for the much-anticipated New York Club Soccer League spring season. Half a dozen ECFC teams were set to play in the league’s most competitive division.

“We finally heard that the spring season was canceled when we got word from ENNYSA,” Barberio said. “Initially we thought that maybe they would move it to the summer and make it five or six games instead of eight.”

But given the spread of the virus, cancellation was the only logical option. “Our biggest fear was of the unknown,” Barberio recalled. “Immediately we had to ask, ‘How serious is this virus?’ and ‘Do our players have family members that can be at risk from this?’” He added that safety and communication were the club’s two biggest focuses after March.

Until the end of June, club players took part in virtual training sessions on Zoom. They also held contests on their teams’ Facebook pages, which offered challenges based on specific skills, and players sent in videos of themselves practicing at home. Barberio and his coaches picked the winners, who received gifts such as $50 gift certificates to GameStop and soccer jerseys.

Then Barberio received notice from ENNYSA that the club would be able to gather again starting July 1. “On July 2 we announced tryouts for July 10, and we didn’t really know what to expect,” Barberio said. “We had over 100 new players try out for the program. Some of those players even came from other clubs … they said, ‘Oh, our club hasn’t really been in contact with us.’ The kids ranged from 2004 birth years to 2013. Some even came from as far as Queens and Suffolk County.”

The club welcomed 70 new players, and the program now boasts more than 400 players on 31 teams, and even upped its coaching staff to 19, including assistants.

“When we started building the program, I said the goal was 300,” Barberio said, smiling. “Now the goal is 500, and then a thousand, I guess.”

Retired Argentine professional soccer player Mariano Belen is ECFC’s head trainer and instructor. The program also added Pete Ingui, a youth soccer coach with 25 years of experience with soccer clubs in both East Meadow and West Babylon.

Although the heat continued to build on Monday morning, Belen directed his players to work on a variety of techniques, and they listened intently.

Barberio said he was proud that his program was the only local youth soccer club he was aware of that offered families full credit for the players’ spring league payment, which will now cover their fall league registration. But the parents of every player on the pitch on Monday had to sign a Covid-19 waiver. Hand sanitation stations were set up near the entrance to Cuomo Field, and parents were not allowed to gather on or off the field — rather, they were asked to watch from their cars if they chose to stay for the duration of training. When players and coaches huddles, coaches had to don masks.

Players worked on striking, defensive and goalkeeping drills. The club had use of five fields, and will continue to need the room as it expands well past its pre-coronavirus player total.

“Strangely enough, this time period benefited us,” Barberio said. “I’m excited for the enthusiasm of parents to come back and work with us. These kids — every one of them is out here smiling, happy and through 100 degrees, it doesn’t matter. They’re playing the game.”