With hopes of a national team, Maryland School for the Blind hosts camp for visually impaired soccer players

A guide bangs her keys on the metal goal post. A coach claps his hands near the edge of the field. Bearings rattle around inside a soccer ball as it’s kicked around the field.

These are a few of the sounds that keep the blind soccer players oriented on the Maryland School for the Blind’s soccer field — the only one in the country, say school and United States Association of Blind Athletes officials.

Without sight guides, the athletes rely on sound to navigate the field. The players are blindfolded to keep the game fair, as the players’ abilities vary from visually impaired to completely blind.

The Maryland School for the Blind this week hosted the first blind soccer camp in North America to train visually impaired athletes and teach coaches how to lead their own teams. Their goal is to establish a national team to compete in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles.

“The U.S. is lagging behind,” said Ulrich Pfisterer, chairman of the International Blind Sports Federation.

The Northeast Baltimore school’s president, Dr. Michael Bina, called the field the “field of dreams.” He had the idea to start a blind soccer team at the school after watching teams compete two years ago at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“This is a springboard for blind soccer in the United States,” said Bina. “We planted the seeds for the sport to grow. There’s no stopping it now.”

The camp’s 20 athletes and 15 coaches hailed from Russia, Germany, Colombia, Canada and nearly 20 states. The oldest player was 50 years old, and the youngest just 16. They spent the week practicing and running drills.

Kevin Orcel, 27, who came to the camp on behalf of Blind Athletes Inc. in New Jersey, said he was surprised by other participants’ aggression and intensity.

“Some people think a lot of the [blind] sports are watered down,” said Orcel, who is visually impaired. “The ball is like gold to them. It feels like it’s every man for themselves.”

Orcel said he came to the blind soccer camp to learn how to play the game so that he can return to work and run a blind soccer program in New Jersey.

With the Los Angeles Paralympics still 10 years away, athletes and coaches are thinking seriously about the future of blind soccer in the country.

“Blind soccer has been in the Paralympics since 2004, but for some reason, there hasn’t been interest or development in the U.S.,” said Kevin Brousard, membership manager for the USABA. “The big purpose of this camp is to grow our domestic presence. That will be the foundation of our national team.”

When the three-day camp started Tuesday, Brousard said the athletes were hesitant to play without guides. Most of them had never even played blind soccer, and they ran with their arms stretched in front of them. But by Thursday afternoon, they were playing in their first match.

A blind soccer field is slightly smaller than a typical field and is fenced in with chest-high dashboards to prevent players from going out of bounds.

“Left!” a goalie shouted Thursday to a girl in an orange pinnie. As the only sighted players on the field, the goalies shouted directions to help teammates find the ball or change positions. They’re restricted to a small box in front of their net.

Sighted guides stationed behind the goals also gave auditory cues. One banged the goal post, which created a loud, clanking sound. “It’s to create a mental picture,” said Brousard, who is legally blind. The noise helps them envision the goal and orient themselves around it.

Fans were asked to keep quiet so that the players could hear each other shout, “Voy” — Spanish for “I’m coming” — when they approached the ball. But the alert didn’t always keep players from knocking into one another or scuffling over the ball.

“Same team!” a coach shouted at two boys in yellow pinnies fighting over the ball. Timothy Taylor, a coach at Maryland School for the Blind who says the school’s blind soccer team is the nation’s first, said he learned the importance of direct, verbal communication at the camp.

“Coming from a sighted world, some of the skills are approached differently,” Taylor said. “You have to be more direct in your communication style.”

The players, drenched in sweat and covered in grass, posed for a group photo after the game.

“I think this is a real starting point for blind football in the U.S.,” Pfisterer said. “I’m convinced”

llumpkin@baltsun.com

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