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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Perhaps the Largest Weekly Gathering of Expats

MTA group of girls fighting for possession of the ball during a recent AYSO playoff match on a field located near the CSKA grounds.
It's a chilly, overcast fall morning and a fierce game of soccer is under way in northern Moscow. Mud-soaked players, their faces masks of grim determination, charge up the field as their opponents put up a furious defense. A sharply kicked ball skims past the goalkeeper's fingertips and into the net as a crowd of fans erupts in a booming cheer.

This was no late-season Spartak game; the scorer was a pixyish 8-year-old girl, half the height of the goalpost. The game was a semifinal match in Moscow's division of the American Youth Soccer League.

The American Youth Soccer League, or AYSO, was founded in California in 1964. Since then, it has become one of the largest nonprofit soccer organizations in the world, with more than 600,000 players and more than 200,000 volunteers.

American Joni Wirthlin started Moscow's AYSO chapter in 1995 as a way for her children to meet other kids and participate in organized sports. There were just a few dozen participants that first season, but the organization grew steadily each year. There are now six divisions, 40 teams and more than 500 players.

When the original founders left the country in 1998, Derk Sauer, the CEO of Independent Media, The Moscow Times' parent company, took over as the organization's commissioner.

"I have three soccer-crazy boys," said Sauer. "They would have been heartbroken if they couldn't play any more. There's just so little to do in Moscow in terms of leisure sports for children."

A desire to play soccer is the only qualification for acceptance to AYSO. Registration begins in June, and the eight-week season extends from August to October with games every Saturday.

AYSO accepts children from 4 to 18 years old. The youngest children participate in more informal games, where dozens of small bodies run after the ball like metal filings chasing a magnet. Older kids play a regular season, with the best teams continuing to a playoff. At the end of the year, all players get to keep their uniforms, and receive a medal and team pictures.

Sportsmanship and fair play are highly emphasized by the dozens of volunteers who act as coaches, referees and organizers.

"All the kids have gotten much better since August," said coach Rick Witt. "They're not only better soccer players but are more gracious when they win and less upset when they lose."

A demonstration of good sportsmanship was witnessed at the concession stand where Jonathan Linsman, 9, goalkeeper for a team called the Fabulous Thunderbirds, shared a slice of pizza with Ted Mehl, whose team, White Lightning, had just eliminated the Thunderbirds in a semifinal match.

"It's not really sad to lose," Linsman said. "I had a lot of fun this season and got better at dribbling."

The league's swelling roster of players has made AYSO's weekly games an opportunity for the parents to make friends, network and swap stories.

"It's not just a sporting event, it's a gathering place for expats," said head referee and league co-chairman Martin Wiewirowski, who estimates that up to 2,000 people attend every Saturday. "To my knowledge, it's the single largest weekly gathering of expats in Moscow."

Indeed, families of many nationalities and speaking a multitude of languages are in evidence at a Saturday soccer game. The last few years have also seen a large increase in the number of Russian players. According to parents and players, there are few language barriers on the field.

"Most of the guys speak Russian pretty well," said Vladimir Semyonov, 17, whose team won the top division boys championship. "Even when they don't, we find some way to communicate."

"I wish they did this more than once a year," said his friend Alexei Arlashkin, 15.

Although there are currently no plans for a spring or autumn league, AYSO organizers would like to see one significant change: moving the games to a new location. This year's fields, located near the CSKA training facility in Sokol, were poorly maintained and often developed huge puddles on rainy days.

"The oligarchs spend all of this money on buying football clubs, yet there are no decent fields for kids to play soccer on in Moscow," Sauer said.

Muddy fields not withstanding, the soccer season proved an enjoyable experience for parents and kids alike. When Nikita Granger, 8, was asked what he would rather do on a Saturday afternoon -- play soccer or watch television -- the answer was not long in coming. "Play soccer!" he shouted.