Joy of the People is open year round for soccer, futsal and (coming soon) puckelball. Summer free play hours are noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you’d like information on their clinics or how to donate to the Field of Joy program, check the website at joyofthepeople.org.
A former professional soccer player, Ted Kroeten started coaching the Saint Paul Blackhawks, an elite youth traveling team, during the Reagan administration. Kroeten has watched the careers of players at every level and has as good an eye for talent as anyone—or so he thought.
Years ago, Kroeten was in Malmo, Sweden on a trip with the Blackhawks. The Malmo coaches pointed to one of their players and said, “That kid has put in the hours. He’s going to be special.”
“I watched him play,” Kroeten says, “and I thought he would never make it. He seemed clumsy. That kid is Zlatan Ibrahimović. He plays for Paris St. Germain and is the third-best player in the world.”
In the late ’80s, Kroeten took a trip to Brazil, where he witnessed kids playing countless hours of street soccer and futbol de salas, a variant of soccer played on smaller concrete courts with a smaller, heavier ball. Brazil routinely churns out some of the best and most creative soccer players in the world. Coincidence?
What the Swedish and Brazilian players had in common was time. Players developed by playing the game, pure and simple: street soccer, futsal, on grass, before school, after school, with a ball or something else, with anyone who will play with them. They put in countless hours and developed a joy for the game.
Kroeten believes American soccer has become too complex, too rigid. Society imposes adult best practices on children, when what is best for children is free play, he says. Yet if it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, the only way a child can become an expert is to play the game at every opportunity, away from the eyes of coaches. Formal instruction will never get a child to 10,000 hours between ages 8 and 18, but free play can.
This insight led to the founding of Kroeten’s nonprofit organization, Joy of the People (JOTP), soccer that, according to the website, is “played by everyone, played with skill and played with joy. At JOTP, we believe that soccer should be inclusive, fun, creative and cooperative long before it becomes competitive.” For that reason, there are no tryouts at Joy of the People—ever. Free play is always free, and the facility is located along the light rail line to allow easy access for all.
Joy of the People meets at the old South Saint Anthony Rec Center in Saint Paul and draws a diverse crowd. This summer, JOTP moves forward with the Field of Joy project, a $1 million overhaul that will feature a large synthetic field along with a street court, sand court, two small turf fields and a puckelball field.
If you haven’t heard of puckelball, you’re not alone. Designed by a Swedish artist, puckelball is a soccer-esque sport, except that the field has many irregular hills and contours, and the goals look like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. There are currently only two puckelball fields in the world—both in Sweden.
“By creating an unequal playing field, we create an equal one,” Kroeten says. “Puckelball will never be programmed, because it’s un-programmable. No elite team can ever take it over—it’s always going to be for kids just to play and imagine and explore. It really sets the example for what we believe in.”
Tim Deuitch’s sons, Joe and Jared, ages 17 and 12, have played at JOTP, an experience that he says offered a genuine focus on ensuring enjoyment of the game. “The free-play concept is loosely structured games with continuously shifting teams, ball sizes, goal sizes and objectives,” Tim Deuitch says. “This differs from conventional programs that emphasize ‘making’ a team and have coach/team-centered dynamics that leave parents hoping that they find the right coaches and ‘fit’ for their kids.”