NYU Shanghai’s Soccer Team Back in Action by Spring 2021

NYU Shanghai does much more than bring students from cultures everywhere around the world to receive an undergraduate education in a small building on Century Avenue in one of China’s largest and most dynamic cities.

Beyond academic learning, it provides them with opportunities to explore other talents, such as  drama and performing arts. And, importantly for their physical and emotional health, it fosters their participation in a competitive sports environment.

NYU Shanghai offers intercollegiate sports teams in soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton and tennis, all of which compete in various intercollegiate games here in Shanghai. 

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With the building of a new campus and new sports facilities, Nicole Wu, Senior Program Coordinator for Athletics and Fitness at NYU Shanghai, believes that the NYU Shanghai sports program will grow into a strong university program that can provide equal opportunities for both male and female athletes to develop their skills.

But despite these optimistic views of the future, the Spring season had been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many sports were unable to restart, resulting in students missing out on opportunities to take part in programs.

This was the case until the start of April when the sports programme restarted. All teams held try-outs by the first week of April, and teams have been practising and training for five weeks in the Spring semester.

Gaby Juhala, a first-year student and Women’s Soccer team player, said she was excited to be able to play in a college sports team as a way to “grow as a footballer and connect with more people that I might not have otherwise.”

Most teams were not able to compete in competitions, except for the Men and Women’s soccer team who competed in the Shanghai Student Football League (SSFL). The Men’s team played their first game on May 6, sadly losing 5-4, and the Women’s team played their first game on May 7, winning 4-1.

The shortened season brought many challenges to the sports administration and teams. Wu had only two weeks to organise and establish the teams as well as secure sports facilities for them to train.

For the players, the season seemed to collide, ominously, with their finals. 

Julien Nelson Rowntree, a sophomore on the Men’s Soccer team and previous season MVP, had mixed feelings about the season. 

“It is great to be on the pitch again, however as a team, it’s hard to be competitive as we cannot fill our strongest team, with players unable to come to matches because of finals,” he said.

These worries were held by many members of the Men’s and Women’s football team. 

Mia Barkenaes, Women’s team player, asked for more support from the school for the athletics department. 

“As student athletes in NYU Shanghai, we feel as though our sports programme is deeply undervalued. People like Nicole Wu, our coaches and us as players put in a lot of work to go out and compete and wish the school could recognise that a little more,” she said.

She furthered this sentiment by discussing the issues with this season.

“It is not that we value our sports education over our academics, it is not that students are trying to cheat their way out of their finals but if student athletes are expected to go out and perform under situations where we also have finals, a little leeway from the school would benefit everyone,” said Barkenaes

Juhala also felt that the school’s tight rules about final exams were hurting the sports teams’ performances. 

“It’s pretty difficult to balance it all, especially since the other Chinese universities we are competing against aren’t in their finals season and they are allowed to miss classes for sports. I think this puts us at a disadvantage because we all can’t be at every game,” she said.

The importance of the sports program to the NYU Shanghai leadership was also questioned by Kevin Nader from the NYU Shanghai Men’s team.

“The reality is we have strong athletes in all teams, but we train once a week compared to other universities training four or five times a week,” said Nader. At NYU Shanghai teams are required to train only once a week for two hours.

“Sometimes I feel like I am playing for an intramural team, not the NYU Shanghai Soccer team. We don’t even have a pitch where we could be playing at ‘home’.” 

Currently, NYU Shanghai does not have any facilities for the soccer teams to train at, and the teams are required to travel for practices and matches. For many of the athletes, this has meant they feel both a disconnect from the school and a lack of support.

“It’s hard to go to games and play teams who have people to come and cheer them on, when half of our community is unaware that we are out here competing,” said Nelson Rowntree 

Juhala also mentioned how the lack of sporting culture was affecting her and her teammates. 

“When we go to play, we come up against teams who have been training together multiple times a week, in good facilities and lots of coaching, (but) for our school we spend a lot of time getting to know each other’s playing styles and getting used to each other,” she said.

Mia, however, felt differently about this situation. “Yea, we don’t have the best facilities or as many people traveling with us for games. Many people are unaware of what our team is doing but we are a small and relatively new school. With that context I think what we have and what the school provides is reasonable.” 

In 2022 when NYU Shanghai moves to its Qiantan Campus, there will be more indoor facilities for all teams, which the Athletics department hopes will be able to solve the issue of facilities in the school and help grow the sporting program.

Despite the challenges, the NYU Shanghai Men’s and Women’s soccer teams still have set high goals and expectations for themselves.

Juhala mentioned that the women’s team aimed to build on its first match win in the next game to secure themselves a spot in the knockout stage of the tournament.

Similarly, Nader also seemed optimistic about the team’s performance. 

“We had a shaky start to our season, but it was our first time back on the pitch in a long time. We still have more games which we know we can win, and we expect ourselves to win,” he said.

Nelson Rowntree also made it clear the men’s team’s main goal was to reach the knockout stage of the competition.

“I want to see the team go far and reach the knockout stages. We have the ability and hopefully if we perform well this semester, we can build on it next semester.”

Sports team tryouts for the Fall 2021 semester begin this week, we will see what the new talent of the Class of 2025 brings.

Author: Ninad Mukherjee

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