Tom Olson

Tom Olson, of the Village of McClure, goes through a few drills with The Villages Senior Soccer club at The Villages Polo Club last October.

In the United States, soccer is typically enjoyed by younger crowds. Participation numbers peak before middle school ages and the country’s biggest soccer-viewing demographic is in the 18-29 range. Here in The Villages, though, a group of senior athletes has made the sport their own. The Villages Senior Soccer club has introduced the beautiful game to many residents while allowing a handful of lifelong players to continue it through retirement.

“It’s really been great for me,” said Bob O’Keefe, of the Village of Fenney.

“I think what keeps bringing me back is it’s a great sport, it’s got great international ties, that’s what I love about it.”

John Ellis, an English native who brings a bevy of international coaching experience to the club, began play in The Villages more than a decade ago with modifications to accommodate senior players.

“A lot of players here in America didn’t get the chance to play and they’re now here living in The Villages and suddenly they’ve got the chance to watch their grandchildren playing and they’re thinking, ‘I’d like to have a go at that,’” said Ellis, of the Village of Bonnybrook. “That’s what we do here. We bring them in, we give them coaching, and then we set these games up for them to play.”

The club plays four days a week — 8-10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at The Villages Polo Club and Fridays and Sundays at Everglades Regional Recreation Complex.

Look to the Children

Senior soccer wasn’t always present in The Villages. While it does predate Ellis, it was played in a much less accommodating style before he founded the Senior Soccer Club.

“Soccer was played to some extent when I got here in 2008 but, in those days, it was played on a full-sized field and people used to travel away,” Ellis said. “I recognized, with my background in soccer, that we needed to adjust the field and we needed to make everything more age- and ability-appropriate.”

Fortunately, part of Ellis’ background as a soccer coach involved working with the late Dr. Tom Fleck, the first youth coordinator of the United States Soccer Federation and former president of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, to develop a program that made the sport more playable for young kids.

“Initially, we wrote a program for U.S. Soccer and that program, now, is what they live by, really,” Ellis said. “It’s for the development of youth and everything has to be age- and ability-appropriate.”

Decades later, Ellis parlayed that experience into an adapted game for seniors.

“I thought, if that makes sense for young children, let’s look at adults so that, when they get to age 55 and above, we can do the same idea,” he said. “We made the field smaller so they can cover the distance and we put on little coaching and technical sessions here about how to kick the ball, how to control the ball.”

Switching Fields

The Senior Soccer Club recently expanded activities from two days a week to four, now playing Fridays and Sundays at the multipurpose field at Everglades, the construction of which the club was instrumental in.

“We approached (The Villages Recreation and Parks Department) about building a soccer complex-type of idea and thought, let’s design it and see if we can present it to John Rohan and, of course, the owner and, eventually, that’s what happened,” Ellis said.

Rohan, the Recreation and Parks director, said the decision to include a soccer field in the plans for Everglades was a no-brainer when the club approached him with their proposition.

“We have such an amazing community with so many residents that love to get the most out of their lives through the abundance of amenities,” he said. “This additional amenity was a natural fit to expand our recreational programming.”

The additional venue has allowed the club to expand play but also make it more accessible to residents at the southern end of the community.

“Obviously, as The Villages has grown, from (the Polo Club) down to Everglades is 30 minutes so, if a person wants to play, they’ve got to drive an hour there and back,” said Ellis. “Now, what we’re starting to find happening is there is a percentage of players who play here and there is a percentage of players who play down there and there are some who play both.”

For Love Of The Game

One of the appeals of the Senior Soccer Club is the broad range of skill levels it embraces. Some participants are lifelong players while others are trying the sport for the first time.

“The mixed skill set is good because it doesn’t make us all just straight out competitive,” said O’Keefe, who has played the sport for decades. “We’re trying to help other people learn the game and it slows us down that have more experience, rather than just kind of running to score the goals, so I like that a lot.”

Many pick up the sport for exercise.

“It’s great exercise, cardio,” said Janice Moses, of the Village of Glenbrook, who played in her youth and as an adult but just recently started playing with the club.

“I just like to move.”

Ellis theorizes that the free-flowing nature of the game is what gives it such a broad appeal to athletes.

“In soccer, the player makes all the decisions. In many other sports, the players are more dictated as to what the plays are,” he said.

“Obviously the comradeship and the competition, we love that, but, at the same time, it’s the fact that you play your game.”

And Ellis’ love of soccer has infected many others in The Villages through his coaching.