“Playing Forward” is a five-part report on 2010′s Street Soccer USA Cup, a 4 v 4 tournament contested between homeless or recently homeless soccer players and held in Washington, DC from July 30 to August 1. It is being printed here in advance of this year’s event, which is scheduled for June 10-12 in DC. You can find part 1 here.
It’s tough to write about Braxton and his Denver team and the entire Street Soccer USA Cup without resorting to at least some cliché, just because so many of our most popular sporting platitudes seem to apply. “The game of their lives,” for one, seems particularly applicable, as does “It’s just a game” and “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game,” and even “One game changes everything.”
The easiest way to explain the Street Soccer USA Cup is to tell you that it’s affiliated with the Homeless World Cup, an annual tournament that does exactly what it says on the tin, pitting teams of homeless men and women representing as many as 64 countries together to compete for a variety of different trophies. Those same eligibility rules applied at the Street Soccer USA Cup, which means that all the participants from any of the 21 teams from the U.S. — and one team from Russia, who we’ll get to later — are or were recently homeless.
Braxton, Sean, Yidne and A.J. first came to the Denver Street Soccer program through Urban Peak, a youth shelter in Denver. Braxton says someone approached him while he was playing basketball at the shelter and told him they were starting up a soccer team. “The first thing he told me was, ‘Do you guys want to go to Washington D.C.?’ And I said ‘Yeah, how can I do that?’” Braxton told Sean. Sean told Yidne. Denver’s program had seen 20 players pass through its ranks, coach Brandon Sejera says, but with those three and A.J., who joined later, it found its core.
Brandon founded Denver Street Soccer in March of 2010, just four years after he’d been introduced to the Homeless World Cup while studying abroad in Madrid in 2006. He says he went wandering the streets of the Spanish capital one day, looking for soccer, when he came upon a field with a team scrimmaging on it. He jumped in; they asked him to come back, so he did, several times. “I ended up meeting another American from the East Coast,” Brandon says. “He was like, ‘Do you understand what this group is?’” Sejera didn’t, so the other told him, “‘They’re a bunch of guys, living on the streets, just out of jail or who were on drugs.’” Brandon found the directors and got an introduction to Street Soccer through them, but he says it was his experience building trust with the players across language, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers through the game of soccer that stuck with him.
Street Soccer USA’s stated goal is to “build community and trust through sports with participants and volunteers, transforming the context within which they live from one of isolation, abuse, and marginalization, to one of community, purpose, and achievement.” The soccer is both a vehicle for imparting life lessons and a carrot to keep players coming back to the program. SSUSA players are required to write out life goals for the next 3, 6, and 12 months. The program then provides them with volunteer mentors, people they can talk to about their lives outside soccer and who can hold them accountable for progress towards those goals. Each player in Denver has his own mentor, and Brandon works hard to bring new volunteers and new organizations into the DSS fold, his philosophy seeming to be that more contacts will lead to more opportunities for his players. Boiled down, the program is about providing structure, both an additional support group to lean on and a newfound responsibility to live up to. It tries to be flexible, providing everything from leads on jobs and help with loan information to a place, Brandon says, in his house where they can sit and relax and watch TV if they want.
That support group increases dramatically in scope once players make it to the Street Soccer USA Cup, where they spend three and a half days interacting with more than 200 fellow and former players, coaches, and volunteers. “When we got there,” Brandon says, “[The Los Angeles team] came up, said hi, introduced themselves. And the looks on my players’ faces… They were like ‘Is this okay? Is it okay to say hi?’ I said, ‘Hey, this is an event for you guys. This is a great way for you to learn about people in the same circumstances about you.’”
Brandon — who’s as extroverted as they come — is in his element here. By the tournament’s first day of competition, he seems to know everyone who walks by, and he stops them all to say hello and introduce them to me. During breaks in the tournament’s schedule, he plays on a “Coaches United” team in the U.S. Open Cup — an all-teams-welcome tournament that pits a couple of coaches’ teams against local DC squads and a team of former U.S. National team members. The Open Cup seems designed to both A) get as much use as possible out of SSUSA’s plastic court while they’ve got it set up and B) satisfy the soccer Jones of several of the younger organizers. Coaches and volunteers from Seattle, and Chicago join Brandon and, in the game I watch, dispatch a local adult team fairly handily.
Players too are pulled into a common fraternity. The message of sportsmanship is drilled incessantly as a method of peer pressure. “That’s not what we’re out here for” is a common refrain used when players foul a little too hard or let their frustrations boil over. Since everyone was actively discouraged from getting angry or frustrated with one another, there was little lingering competitive tension to prevent post-match interaction. On Sunday, I saw A.J. walking and talking with a different player from a different city every 15 minutes, a regular social butterfly. You don’t see much of that at competitive tournaments, youth or adult, where the post-game handshake sometimes feels like a stack of TNT waiting for someone to accidentally lean on the plunger.
Goalies in particular, as mentioned before, feel the bond of their vocation. During one game I asked Cris, the goalie for the Sacramento team, whether he just rooted for goalies. No, he explained, he was cheering for the Russian team, because “they’re sober, just like us.” When I catch him clapping and cheering the other goalie after an impressive save just a moment later, he reconsiders. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he says, grinning widely.
Shots in Street Soccer come in so often and from such close range that keeping goal requires a skill set closer to that of a hockey goalie. Catching most of the shots is right out; a street soccer keeper is more likely to use his or her hands for picking up stray passes that roll or bounce into his/her crease. On-target shots are deflected with the hands or feet or absorbed with the body, legs, or face. It’s more about getting a part of the body, any part, in front of the ball. When I ask A.J. two months after the tournament how his game has improved, the first thing he tells me is how much more courageous he’s gotten. “Now I can basically go get hit with the ball, and it won’t hurt that much. I’ve gotten immune.”
On PK’s, most goalies tend to go to ground early and often, splaying their legs out or just falling into what they think might be the path of the shot. During the Seattle game, Richmond goalie Will’s constant refrain to A.J. was “Small and Big,” make it look like the opponent has an opening in a space you know you can cover. Seattle’s goalie used the same strategy to save Braxton’s penalty, going from vertical to horizontal as fast as gravity would take him to get in the shot’s path. To do so hurts on the SSUSA court, but goalies especially seem more than willing to give up the body for the sake of the team.
Once, I see Will the Richmond goalie diving at full stretch for a shot — not a graceful dive, like some of the better keepers in this competition can manage — more a splayed leap that ended with him belly-flopping to the hard plastic and springing back up, angry because he didn’t get his fingertips on the ball in time. The sportsmanship message is ever present, but the teams do play hard. At one point on my second day at the competition, I realized it had been nearly an hour since I had consciously thought about the fact that I was watching homeless people play soccer. By that point, they were just soccer players to me.
 The full rules on player eligibility for the 2010 tournament, taken from the Homeless World Cup website:
“Players must meet at least one of the following criteria:
– Have been homeless at some point after 01.09.2009, in accordance with the national definition of homelessness.
– Make their main living income as street paper vendor.
– Asylum seekers currently without positive asylum status or who were previously asylum seekers but obtained residency status after 01.09.2009. Only 2 members of a team may have non national passports. All other players must have a national passport of the nation they are representing.
– Currently in drug or alcohol rehabilitation and also have been homeless at some point in the past two years (post 01.09.2008).”
Also, they have to be at least 16 years old, and cannot have participated in any previous Homeless World Cup tournaments, though that last requirement doesn’t prevent them from playing in another Street Soccer USA Cup.
 When I was at the tournament, I just told friends I was at the Homeless USA Cup, which was easier than going through the explanation of the P.C. name.
 I didn’t meet any street paper vendors when I was at the tournament, but I didn’t ask every participant why he qualified to be there either.
 For the record, the national definition of homelessness, according to HUD:
1. an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
2. an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is –
a. a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the/ mentally ill);
b. an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
c. a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.
 U.S. Street Soccer National Team members.
 Brandon tells me the rest of their games did not go as well, and that he somehow managed to sprain both his ankle and his wrist before the Open Cup concluded.
 Sacramento was known as the Mohawks; three guesses as to why that is.
 Out in Denver two weeks before the tournament, A.J. showed me that his glasses were missing one of the bridge pads. On the second day of the tournament, I notice he has a cut on the side of his nose, right where the pad should be, like something drove the glasses down and in with a lot of force. By the third day, he wasn’t wearing the glasses in goal anymore. I joked with him that he should look into some Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-style sports goggles, but he told me he didn’t need them.