Photo by Christine Troyke
There's a place in South America where kids play soccer year-round. They wake up early before school to play a game and then will play some more after school.
The soccer fields are mostly dirt and less grass. Actual soccer cleats are seldom used and soccer goals are fashioned out of makeshift materials.
For Duluth's Erin Falk, there's only one way to describe this place.
"It is the best place on Earth," Falk said.
Falk has always had a love for soccer, but after spending the last two summers in Bolivia at the Tahuichi International Soccer Camp, that love has turned into a passion.
Falk has brought that spirit to Duluth, where she has the Wildcats off to their best start in six years. Duluth hasn't had a winning season since 2004, but Falk hopes to change that after her experience in Bolivia.
"It was a weird kind of thing. I kind of fell in love with it," Falk said. "Just the people there that had absolutely nothing else but soccer and the fact they loved it so much. Everyone talks about the cliche of a love for the game, but I had never seen a love for the game. It was just soccer 24/7 and everyone was happy about soccer 24/7."
The Tahuichi soccer camp in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, is a select camp that brings some of the top American players to South America to train and play with some of the top players from Bolivia.
The camp typically features boys from the ages of 16-22. Some are Division I college players and others are playing for national teams. Falk was one of three girls at the camp last summer at the age of 16.
"It was the best soccer I've played, ever," Falk said. "Mostly because it was all boys, but the teams that are actually there are sick nasty."
The monthlong camp begins with a week of fitness training. Players will go on a river run, which she said "is really gross because you have no idea what's in the river," as well as a 12-mile trail run or a run up and down sand dunes, which is "like you're walking in molasses."
The rest of the month players go through two-a-days, including training sessions and games with or against Bolivian teams.
"They all think it's so crazy that a girl plays soccer," Falk said. "Everyone comes out and watches and it's a great experience."
The camp has helped Falk improve her level of play over the last two years. She's become one of Region 7-AAAAA's top players and led Duluth in scoring last season as a midfielder with 12 goals.
"I've coached for over a decade now and I can pretty confidently say that Erin is a once in a lifetime player," Duluth coach Vince Hayes said. "She is not only athletic and skilled with tenacity and game intelligence, she has this overwhelming passion for the game. There's players you see that have it. You know we're going to see her playing soccer on TV one day. She's that kind of player. Her desire, I've never seen it matched in a boy or a girl in any athlete in any sport."
In addition to playing for Duluth, Falk also plays for an Olympic Development team that was third at nationals, with a club team, on a recreation squad and two indoor soccer teams.
"Any kind of soccer is just fun for me," Falk said.
Duluth is 5-2-1 this season with the biggest win coming over nemesis Norcross, which Duluth beat for the first time in seven seasons to claim the Rival Cup. It's no surprise that Falk had the deciding goal in the game.
Falk has drawn interest from several colleges to play soccer at the next level. She's not sure if she wants to pursue a great soccer school or a great academic school. She just knows she wants to keep her passion for soccer like they do in Bolivia.
"As long as I play soccer the rest of my life, I think I will be good," Falk said.