When John Palladino moved to Roosevelt Island in 2013, he didn’t just find a new home for his family; he discovered the perfect place to build what he believes could be one of the premier youth soccer clubs in New York City.
“It’s no secret that this Island has a hugely diverse population, and for many Island kids, soccer is their sport,” explains Palladino, head coach of the Palladino Academy of Soccer (the Academy).
“Unfortunately there wasn’t any quality soccer training offered on the Island when I got here,” says Palladino. “I saw that and I realized that they are in dire need of it.”
Catherine Palladino, Director of the program and John Palladino’s wife, recalls that shortly after moving to the Island, several kids came up to her husband at the soccer field after seeing him kick the ball around and juggle the ball.
“He started just meeting up with this group of kids when they were free and in a couple of weeks we had over 10 families asking him to train their kids because this type of training wasn’t available on the Island.
“We did this for the spring of 2013, but we took a break from it due to all of the difficulties we had with getting field time and how much money we had to front to have an academy.” Catherine notes that they have to pay for field fees, insurance, and equipment in full before the season starts.
“The parents and the kids were so disappointed [when we stopped] that one of the parents, Caroline Cuozzi, came to John and said, ‘If I talk to all of the parents and let them know exactly how much costs will be, get the permits and insurance, would you please do this for the kids?’ That is the reason John started the Academy – for the kids on the Island who wanted more than a rec league; they wanted a year-round place to come learn, grow, and play.” And play all year round they do. Palladino says, “In the winter we train in Sportspark two to three times a week and play in the Chelsea Piers Indoor League.”
Today the Academy trains 50 players and hosts summer soccer camps on the Island. They have three teams who compete in the New York City Soccer League (NYCSL), a youth league. Additionally, they offer a Mighty Mites training session for children ages four and five who do not travel or play competitive games.
The Academy does not offer a girls program currently, though they aspire to. Palladino says, “There is less interest from girls. All of the girls I train play with the boys. I like this because the girls learn the physical aspect from the boys, but more importantly, the boys learn from the girls. In my experience, girls are much more advanced in understanding team mentality, teamwork, passing, and they play with less ego than the boys.”
Palladino holds a United States Soccer Federation (USSF) C Coaching License, qualifying him to train kids up to 18 years old. He has coached at every age level, including college; he was the head of recruiting and first assistant coach for three seasons at Gonzaga University, a Division I soccer school in Washington.
He has also spent plenty of time on the field himself. As a student, Palladino attended Gonzaga University on a full athletic scholarship for soccer. He received ALL-WCC (West Coast Conference) accolades every year he played as a student.
Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs took an interest in Palladino starting when he was in college. “I would train with them during the summers,” says Palladino. “I tore my first ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] when I was training with the Colorado Rapids.
“I also trained with the Houston Dynamo, the Columbus Crew, and the Chicago Fire. [Including the Colorado Rapids], those were the four teams that were interested in me.
“Once I tore my first ACL I was injury-ridden,” Palladino says, “In my last year, I cracked my talus,” the bone that connects the leg and the foot. He took a year off after college and came to New York to pursue other endeavors. He ultimately got a call to try out for the Portland Timbers and got an offer, but decided to turn it down. According to Palladino, “I was always a good athlete but I got tired of getting cut and having people drill holes in my body to fix it. I’ve torn two ACLs, an MCL [medial collateral ligament], and an LCL [lateral collateral ligament]. I’ve done anything that can be done to a knee. I got really tired of going under the knife and recovering. It takes a year every time.”
With the Academy, Palladino is hoping to ignite the same passion for soccer in the next generation.
“I have a very specific training style and training system. I don’t baby the kids. I hold them to a high standard. You see as they become 13, 14, 15 years old, that they will have better habits than the other kids, and better attitudes than the other kids. I learned from coaching at the collegiate level that by the time they get into college their bad habits are already made. So it’s important at the younger ages that they get the correct training and they are held responsible for having the proper technique, having the proper attitude, having the proper work ethic, training, the right mentality in the team structure.”
His training style comes from Seely Soccer Academy, where he was their first student and later on a coach. “Seely has kids going full rides [athletic collegiate scholarships] or MLS every year,” says Paladino. “It’s a very specific system and it works.”
But Palladino emphasizes that soccer is more than just a game. “Soccer is creative and it takes a special amount of team mentality because there is no set plan, unlike basketball and American football. The kids need to know how to work together, to listen to one another, to communicate well, and be team players. The game is fluid and the kids need to adapt to one another. Fluidity and adaptability are skills I really focus on.
“What I am also doing is giving these kids the life skills to be successful in anything,” says Palladino. “To teach them the right work ethic, to teach them how to work as a team, to be humble, to be present, and enjoy playing.” They learn how to lose, too. “Losing because you didn’t assert yourself is different than losing because the other team is better.”
Part of the mission of the Academy, according to Palladino, is to foster a family setting. “The kids who train with me are going to be around each other all the time. They are going to go into battle together and they are going to train together and sweat together; they’re going to get into arguments and make up and they are going to learn how to be a team. This is going to be something that they are going to cherish together.”
Palladino is also proud of the fact that the Academy has Islanders on its payroll. Two of his coaches, Saad Afif and Leo Folla, also play on Zum Schneider FC 03, the men’s team Palladino coaches. The team plays in the Cosmopolitan League, the top amateur league in the City. Of his coaches, Palladino says, “They understand the system and they’re on the Island and the kids know them and the kids respect them. I don’t want to bring people in from off-Island. I want it to be an Island thing. We want it to be familiar faces.”
Main Street Sweets is also part of their extended family; Coach Scot wheeled the store’s ice cream cart to the last day of the Academy’s soccer camp on September 2. Families are encouraged to bake for concessions at home games and for the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.
“The next step is to get RIOC (the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation) on board with us so they can help us grow,” Palladino says. He believes the Island has the facilities here to train 500 kids, and that “we could become one of the most competitive teams in the City.”
The proof, according to Palladino is in the results: “We went down to Chelsea Piers last year and we dominated [in the Chelsea Piers League]. We started out a little rough but once we got used to it we did really well. The team that won (we got third) told us that we were the best team that they played. We’re no slouches.”
“Soccer is the fastest growing youth sport in the U.S. So the demand is there,” Palladino says.
A challenge Palladino has encountered is the perception that a second soccer club undermines the Island’s longstanding free youth soccer league run by the Roosevelt Island Youth Program. In response, Palladino says, “I don’t see us as occupying the same space. It’s absurd to compare us – we both provide activities for kids on the Island, but we are not in competition [with each other] and we are not offering the same thing.” At one point, Palladino was hired by the Youth Program to train their coaches. He says it went well.
“Roosevelt Island Youth Program [RIYP] Soccer is not a competitive team. They don’t train kids. [RIYP] is fun for the kids which is great. Kids deserve that and kids should have that.
“We are a training academy. The kids that train with me are going to be around each other all the time. All the kids I grew up with on my team are my best friends to this day.”
Looking back on his “rougher upbringing” in Spokane, Washington, Palladino recounts, “I could have ended up anywhere. Seely Soccer Academy taught me everything. I want to pass on the thing that saved me.”
To that end, financial aid and scholarships are available on an as-needed basis. Palladino says, “We don’t turn kids away. You have no idea how much comes out of my pocket. This is the thing that I want to do for other people. My goal is to pass the wonderful lessons this game has taught me in my lifetime to the kids on the Island.”
Enrollment is open all year long at palladinoacademy.com/registration. Palladino says, “Our goal is to become an inclusive program to any child who wants to learn the game.”