GENEVA – Bridges FC’s soccer headquarters stand a long free kick from Geneva High School, a community that welcomed many former members for homecoming this past weekend.
As Disney-themed floats and hoopla invaded the nearby streets for the event’s annual parade Friday, the youngest tenants of 623 McKinley St. – all from out-of-state – fathomed a whole new world, as well.
Thanks to president and head coach Bret Hall, his staff and their track record of placement in European leagues, aspiring soccer players find the Bridges FC amateur soccer team to be a tremendous resource. Although every member does not complete the familiar cycle of train/tour Europe/sign a contract, they don’t undersell the importance of self-discovery, either.
“At the end of the day, I think what coach and them look for moreso than you reaching a pro contract is how you become a man, you know,” said Devin Randle, a 23-year-old defender from Indiana. “How you live the rest of your life. How you treat people.”
A nonprofit organization that first launched informally in the late 1990s, Bridges FC attracts what Hall and head scout/assistant coach Kieren Keane called “a good mix” of players with traditional soccer backgrounds and those who are underpriveleged.
A verse from I Corinthians appears atop the Bridges website, underlying a faith-based approach.
Brothers Roi Momo, 20, and Prince Lapnet, 23, come from a Washington, D.C., home in which their mother raised six children. Both live with Hall, Keane and Randle, balancing part-time jobs with intensive training at Palatine’s Soccer City or the Campton United indoor facility.
In July, when the group took its annual exposure trip to Europe for a series of exhibitions against lower-tier professional Dutch, Swedish, Danish and German teams, Momo served as cook.
As teammates dispersed either to Europe (with newfound contracts), back to school or home, Momo remained in touch, and not just about how to duplicate his spaghetti Bolognese.
“You spend so much time with guys off the field that they become family, you know,” Momo said. “Not through just going to church, but house time. … At Bridges, you learn to care for people as more than just people, but as your neighbor, as your family.”
Hall, a former St. Charles High assistant and St. Charles Celtics club coach, said Bridges sponsor Brian Oxley of St. Charles allows tenants to stay at the house rent-free. Oxley is a longtime associate of Hall’s friend and consultant, Rob Keith.
The house has held as many as 10 men in the past 18 months, usually around the holidays, when training hits its pinnacle as players return from college for winter break.
There have been bumps along the way – Lapnet, 23, faced a date in traffic court later this month after allegedly recently driving without a license and accidentally backing into the front of a neighbor’s house – but Hall, ackowledging “stress on the neighbors,” said Oxley has been looking for bigger space for a while.
Bridges has been met with open arms throughout its existence.
Hall continually credits the generosity of Campton United for the use of its facilities and health professionals John Aikenhead and Richard Erickson for offering consultation at little or no cost. A Finland-based agent, Emil Furcht, also has been helpful.
Aikenhead’s son, JC, is a former Bridges captain now playing in Sweden, a target area for the club given its blend of soccer talent and relaxed immigration restrictions. A number of former players return home to play in the U.S., including defender Rauwshan McKenzie, now of the Portland Fire of Major League Soccer.
Bridges usually has been competitive since its European tours began in the mid-2000s, but memories of drubbings remain close at hand.
“When you’re down in the bad end of a 6-0 defeat and there’s just no way to rationalize anything, if you still want to be a soccer player, then you’re a soccer player,” Hall said, “and that’s what we try to take those guys, is to get that experience.
“As coaches, we hate it, but it’s a great experience for the guys. I mean, there’s nothing better, because then they can really set to work hard.”
Randle personsifies that ethic. A former prep track star, he attended Kent State for one year before returning home, deciding the sport wasn’t for him.
He played one season of collegiate soccer at Illinois Wesleyan, and now is finishing his degree online.
Randle first encountered Hall while playing for the Chicago Eagles, a division of the Christian soccer organization Missionary Athletes International. He remained in touch, and for that reason still is mindful of his soccer dreams. In a sport not blessed with the developmental structure of minor league baseball, all the better to have an ally.
“It’s blown my expectations away. It’s just been a really good program that gives guys chances, second chances, you know, that don’t necessarily have the means or the ways of finding those opportunities,” Randle said.
“It’s been great so far. The training’s good, the level of training is high, so it’s a good environment to come see where you’re at in the game and learn what you need to adjust, the attitude adjustment you need to make. It’s a big learning experience.”