Before you have kids, it can be easy to get caught up in what you imagine the people they’re going to be — what they’ll like, what they’ll do, how you can raise them to be kind, caring individuals. But then they actually come along and well, things aren’t always quite like you planned. As the mother of Oliver — a soccer-obsessed 10-year-old — Elizabeth Applen knows a thing or two about this.
“My little sister played soccer through high school and she makes fun of me now because I hated going to her games and avoided it and wanted nothing to do with it,” she says via Zoom. Her husband, Michael played in high school but apart from that, their family had no real soccer history before Oliver, their oldest, got into it. “The idea of being a sport parent was something I didn't look forward to at all and I am the primary driver/chauffeur and authentically enjoy it. But it was a surprise to me that I enjoyed it.”
Oliver began playing rec soccer when he was four, but only started to “really like it” when he was in kindergarten, when he began playing up with the second and third graders. The kids who didn’t know his name called him “Messi.” Whether that was for his ball skills or his floppy mane of dark hair is not entirely clear but by this point, he’s got some moves.
“He started taking the soccer ball with him,” says Elizabeth, sending Oliver running off to retrieve that first ball, “to and from the car, everywhere he went and I caught myself wanting to be like, ‘Stop! Stop having the ball everywhere we go.’ And I realized that's probably not a very good thing to say. Let him follow whatever he's into. But he's our oldest, so it was the first time I saw a passion and I've never liked anything like he does, so this was new to me. It's a little overdrive with him.”
Oliver returns with the ball, a horrifically beat-up white soccer ball missing half its panels with fluffy material coming out all over. His parents have promised to never throw it away.
COVID-19 forced him to take what he calls “a huge break” from organized soccer, leaving him to unsuccessfully try to convince his younger brother, Gus, to play with him. Oliver’s now back at it with some pandemic-associated restrictions, training with Pura Vida and playing for a couple teams, as young players often do.
“I have a couple leagues and one of them I play left mid — which is my main club, Minneapolis United — and my other Spanish league, which is called Morelos, and I play for Los Guerreritos, which means ‘Little Warriors,’ and I play right mid on that,” he says before going into his typical tactical approach. “I'll usually be going down the line for a through ball and then I will either cut it back or take the defender one-on-one to goal and then if I cut it back, I'll cross it or take a shot.”
The Applen family — Oliver, Elizabeth, Gus and Michael — at Children's Mercy Park for Oliver's birthday.
Asked about his favorite Minnesota United players, he leans into the ones he’s gotten to meet personally at player camps, naming Jan Gregus, Chase Gasper and Michael Boxall. By his mom’s calculation, Oliver has watched every game this season, from the first two away games through the MLS Is Back Tournament and both Phase 1 and Phase 2, even if it’s meant promising to take a nap to stay up late or having Elizabeth mute notifications on her phone until they can catch up after practice or dinner so they won’t have the result spoiled. The 10-year-old is also unstinting in his assessment of fellow attacking mid Emanuel Reynoso.
“He's pretty good, yeah,” he says, “but I can tell just by watching, he comes from a more physical league and he's more aggressive than other players that we're playing against and on our team. But he also doesn't, in my opinion, doesn't have the best attitude because he sometimes gets mad at the ref. From what I've noticed.”
More than anything, what comes across in talking to Elizabeth and Oliver is the way fandom grows in a sprawling way from the humblest seeds, especially when it comes to kids dragging their families along for the ride. Kids go through so many different phases and interests in their early years that it can be impossible to tell what’s going to stick. But here’s Oliver, six years in, showing off the game-worn jersey he got from Vito Mannone at a Fourth of July game and talking about playing FIFA with former Loon Wilfried Moimbé-Tahrat’s kids when they all went to the same school briefly. He even participated in the early-quarantine fad of the Toilet Paper Challenge — much to the detriment of a vase in their house:
For Elizabeth, it’s also become something more than just an activity for her kids. Like many fans, she appreciates the way the club’s core values are felt and lived during gamedays, and how the team is made up of high character guys.
“Taking our kids to games is more than just about soccer,” she says. “They see our team use their platform to honor and celebrate Black Lives Matter and Pride. These are ongoing issues we talk about at home, and for our kids to see the guys they look up to representing the message that equal rights are of vital importance is really special.”
To a person, she’s found all the players to be genuine and caring about the community they’re now a part of. “I could not believe how kind they all are and how engaged they are,” she says. “And even the high fives at warmup time to a lot of the stuff they do in the community, I felt like everywhere we went, you were seeing the players and they made you feel like you were friends with them.”
Oliver, as well, has been impressed with them. “They're way better than most people at soccer,” he says.