Big Easy Expansion

Devastation Unites Soccer Community

Often devastation left
in the wake of a disaster the size of Hurricane Katrina serves to bring
together communities and people that otherwise never would have united.
Wednesday’s announcement of the Chicago Fire Juniors expansion in Louisiana provides
an excellent example of an idea long in the making, needing a catalyst to make
it happen.

This is the story of
how the Chicago Fire Juniors in Louisiana as we now know it, united with local
rivals Lakeview Soccer Club and the Carrollton Soccer Association to become a
stronger club underneath the Chicago Fire Juniors banner.

Bryon Hatrel’s family was one of many displaced by Hurricane
Katrina in August 2005. Evacuated 75 miles west of New Orleans to Baton Rouge,
the Lafreniere Soccer Club President resided in a hotel with a number of other
soccer families.

“The kids were without anything to do,” said the
CFJ-Louisiana President. “We were all staying in hotels or with family and
friends in the Baton Rouge area and the kids obviously weren’t in school. After
a while they started to go a little stir crazy and we looked for a way just to
get them out, exercising, doing something to get their minds off what had
happened at home.”

The Baton Rouge Soccer Club stepped up to the plate,
securing fields to provide the displaced children a spot to continue their
soccer training. Hatrel took under his wing a group of boys aged 11 and 12 coming
from different clubs in New Orleans: his own Lafreniere SC, the Carrollton
Soccer Association and Lakeview Soccer Club were all represented in Hatrel’s
group.

“Everyday, more and more parents and kids that you
recognized would show up. We welcomed everybody. One day we were doing a normal
training session when Louie [Smotherman] came across us and asked if he could
assist. He’s much more adept at coaching than myself and I was happy to hand
the team over to him.”

Displaced by the hurricane himself, Smotherman, Director of
Coaching for the Carrollton Soccer Association and direct rival of Lafreniere
in New Orleans, took over the team. He would go on to develop a side that
competed in Baton Rouge for six weeks, making the wait to return home seem
shorter.

“We were Evacuee United,” said Smotherman. “Everyone was in
the same boat and we came together. Our team was made up of mostly boys and
some girls close in age and we basically played the next six weeks together on
this team. It was a collection of kids that I mostly wouldn’t get to see or
coach otherwise. Everyone enjoyed themselves and there was no better way to
pass the time when it came to figuring out how we were going to get back to the
city.”

For Hatrel, the forced togetherness of it all served as the
first precursor for an idea he’d long been thinking about.

“I’d thought for a while that the New Orleans area clubs
needed to come together instead of splitting our resources. As a whole, it
would begin to make us much stronger not having to compete against each other.
There are always problems at the youth level with bureaucracy and egos getting
in the way of things. Clubs should exist first to develop talent and leave
things like that at the door.”

Flash forward to 2008, with everyone returned home. The city
of New Orleans received an invitation from the city of Durban, South Africa to
place a team in a tournament that would be held that summer. Tryouts were held
with all three clubs being represented on the team as well as in the coaching
ranks.

Smotherman was joined by his Director of Coaching counterparts,
Julio Paiz of Lafreniere and Hubie Collins of Lakeview, serving as coaches and
chaperones during their week-long stay in South Africa. The tournament was the
second pre-cursor to Wednesday’s expansion announcement.

 “I really think going
[to South Africa] together helped,” said Smotherman. “With the city funding it,
we had to work together, we were competing together in a way that we’d never
done before. The three of us stayed in the same room, which gave us a lot of
time to put rivalries aside and talk about the landscape of soccer in New
Orleans. It helped break down a lot of barriers and open up our minds to ideas
of doing what was best for the players, clubs, coaches and the soccer
environment as a whole.

Last May, with approximately 1,200 enrollees, Lafreniere
became the first club to take up the Chicago Fire Juniors colors. After seeing
the initial success they had as a CFJ club, a long series of talks between a
number of different parties began.

“It was just a very long and difficult process to get
everyone on the same page,” said Hatrel. “Not only getting the directors but
the coaches and the boards. Multiple town hall meetings and individual team
meetings were held. It’s something that we plugged away at for a long time.
While the idea had always been there, the final piece to the puzzle was having
an outside entity like the Chicago Fire involved. Having a professional club
come in and show interest in uniting us served as the final catalyst in getting
this done.”

With the additions of Carrollton and Lakeview, the number of
players now enrolled in the CFJ-Louisiana is approximately 3,000, making it the
largest of the nine CFJ clubs across the country.

It seems there is no room for egos. Each club is equally
represented on the nine-person Board of Directors and all three Coaching
Directors have equal footing under the CFJ-Louisiana umbrella.

As for where they see the Louisiana Fire Juniors in a few
years, Hatrel and Smotherman have high hopes for the future.

“We believe we have the potential to become the biggest club
in the state of Louisiana within the next few years,” said Hatrel. “We believe
having the advantage of a professional pipeline and giving players the chance
to wear the same jersey from the time they’re 10-years-old all the way to when
they’re adults is very attractive to everyone.”

“We want to be on the cutting edge of soccer,” added
Smotherman. “We want to continue to grow the numbers and grow the club. We want
to build towards higher levels, whether its gaining Academy status, or starting
a PDL team for our men or W-League for our women. We see this as the first big
step in a new effort to better develop the soccer talent of New Orleans.”

For more information
about the Chicago Fire Juniors-Louisiana, please visit their official website
at
www.chicagofirejuniorslouisiana.com.