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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kids Have a Ball Despite Cold

MTMembers of Men in Black defending against a Stampeding Herd player on Saturday.
Barry Steenkanp started playing soccer in his native South Africa, and now, at 12 years of age, can add Russia to his credentials. As a member of a team in the Moscow branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization, he says the only difference between soccer in Moscow and soccer at home is the weather.

"In South Africa it's warm. Here it's like, minus 400 degrees," he said, practicing kick-ups on the sidelines.

Despite its name, any child -- expat or Russian -- can play in the American Youth Soccer Organization. The league playoffs took place Saturday, but the children were more interested in playing with their friends than winning.

"Anyone can do it. It doesn't really matter if you win or not," said Allison Rainsdon, an 18-year-old from Texas. "It gives the kids from the Christian School and the Anglo-American School a chance to play together and with Russian kids rather than against them."

That's the attitude the Moscow branch of AYSO has been promoting since 1995. This year 532 kids signed up, a record number and almost at the limit for the league, said Martin Wiewlorowski, chief referee and one of AYSO's commissioners.

"It's like a Tower of Babel. About half the kids are Anglo-American and the rest are from all over," he said.

Rick Witt, head coach of the league, estimated that 40 percent of the players in this year's league are Russian.

The games and practices are in English, but that doesn't stop Russians and other non-English-speaking children from joining.

Any child who signs up can play for AYSO. Children aged 5 to 7 play just for fun, and the league ensures fair competition among the older kids by evenly distributing skilled players among the teams.

After each game, the teams -- both winners and losers -- filed onto a stage on the sidelines to pose for their parents' photographs and receive a soccer ball and a medal from Wiewlorowski and Derk Sauer, another AYSO commissioner and head of Independent Media, owner of The Moscow Times.

There are benefits for parents of AYSO players, too. "It's the biggest gathering of expats during the weekend," Wiewlorowski said, estimating that about 2,000 people come out every Saturday for the games. "It's like a big party."