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.