“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, part 2 here, and part 3 here.
I’m of the opinion that part of the reason Street Soccer works so well in the U.S. is because many of the players start on relatively even footing. Nearly everyone has played some kind of football or basketball, even just in P.E. classes in school, and most people use that experience to form a preconceived notion of how good they are and how much they like those sports. But many of the Street Soccer USA (SSUSA) participants that I talked to had never played soccer before getting involved with the program — like Braxton, many were brought into the sport by the prospect of the trip to D.C. — and so they were able to form new ideas about the game as they started to play it. Those who had played before — many of them Hispanic or African immigrants — probably had positive ideas about the game anyway.
The flip side is that some people hear “soccer” and just assume they wouldn’t be interested. Denver Street Soccer (DSS) Director of Development Amber McMahon tells me this is one of the problems Denver Street Soccer is running into as they try to grow the program outside Urban Peaks and its core group of four guys. The Denver players work to recruit people they know, trying to bring more players into the fold, but had little luck in the first couple of months.“Word on the street hasn’t really been helping. Guys don’t want to come out because it’s soccer. They want to play basketball.”
The level of commitment required doesn’t help matters. DSS practices twice a week, and in the fall after the SSUSA Cup, started playing weekly games in an adult indoor league. While practices aren’t strictly mandatory, there’s a sensible limit to what the players can miss and still be a part of the team. Besides, there’s not a lot of benefit to be gotten out of the program if you aren’t showing up and taking advantage of what the team can provide.
There’s a chance that you, like me, are skeptical here. I know that many of the people I talked to in passing about the tournament were, questioning the purpose and effectiveness of the program. I’m a believer in the redemptive power of sports, certainly, but I doubted SSUSA’s ability to tackle homelessness. It seemed too broad, with too many potential causes and too many potential disruptions. The values imparted in a couple of months or years on the field couldn’t erase years of bad circumstances, bad luck, or bad decisions.
It didn’t take long for the SSUSA Cup to change my mind. The players —the ones who are supposed to be benefiting from this program, the ultimate arbiters on whether it’s working — all swear by the program. SSUSA says 75 percent of its players who last a year in the program move off the street during that year, but the numbers aren’t half as convincing as the experience of being there, at the tournament, watching the players participate and talk with each other and laugh and joke and have a grand old time.
They enjoy it so much that it seems like more than half the players from the year before have come back, and those who won’t be eligible next year, like Sacramento’s Cris, tell me how they’re trying to get taken on as mentors and assistant coaches so they can come back in 2011 too. The soccer’s a powerful incentive, but in this case the structure — this network of other players — is just as appealing.
Two months after the Street Soccer USA Cup, 75 percent of the Denver team had already moved out of Urban Peak and into places of their own. Braxton and Sean are taking classes at the Community College of Denver; Yidne’s enrolled in the Denver Street School, which provides a high school education to at-risk youth, students who have been expelled from other schools or who have been homeless. Braxton’s working as a cook at a local breakfast place. Sean is teaching art classes at a local Boys and Girls Club, and some of his work is on display and for sale at a local Starbucks. Sean says Denver Street Soccer has bolstered his resume, allowing him to showcase his commitment and teamwork when he puts out applications.
Which isn’t to say everything has gone swimmingly. Denver was supposed to be bringing another player to D.C., but he ended up going to jail just before the team was scheduled to leave.  “It’s kind of heartbreaking to see what some of these guys are going through,” Amber says. “These guys are so close. Then all of a sudden — bam — back to square one.” The ones who do make it are facing major life changes, Brandon says, building the schedules of their new lives: school, work, study time, personal time, and of course, soccer. “They went from being on the streets and having nothing to all of a sudden having all this stuff laid out every single day. They’re really growing up.”
As of October 2010, A.J.’s still living at Urban Peak, but he has his own dream. Shortly after the SSUSA Cup, he approached Brandon asking for advice starting up a Christian break-dancing team aimed at homeless youth — the MAG, for Multi-Awareness Gangstaz — that will provide for others the outlet that Denver Street Soccer gave him. “It really struck me,” Brandon tells me, “Here he’s still homeless, and he’s trying to open up and start his own program to help others.” In addition to his day job, he works part-time at a Denver dance studio in exchange for breakdancing and hip-hop lessons.
After the SSUSA Cup, the team continued to practice twice a week on the DSIS field at the corner of 6th and Delaware until early darkness forced them to an indoor location. Their high school opponents have given way to a group of volunteers, several of whom come from the Colorado Rapids Bulldog Supporters group. They also play in a coed adult indoor league on Sundays, with Brandon and some volunteers filling in the remaining roster spots. “They are so much more aggressive, so much smarter, so much more confident on the ball,” Amber says. “I’m scared of them now.”
“Before we left for the U.S. Cup, it was kind of nice and easy,” Brandon says. “Now, I’ve got to watch myself. They’ll be right there behind me, and they’ll take the ball.
“Braxton is soaring above in leadership,” Brandon continues. “He’s there for the guys when they need him. He’s there to set an example. He hustles at practice no matter what. He’s there to spot out the different problems and what we need to work on. He’s just a great leader, and he’s really grown in that. Sean has come a long way, learning how to read and relate with people on the field and off the field. He’s learning different foot skills, what to do, how to use his body. He’s been scoring at least one goal a game with us; at practice he’s been scoring like crazy.”
The development of its four core players gives Denver Street Soccer a foundation for what it hopes is an aggressive expansion. Brandon, Amber and their team have cultivated support for the program in high places, from the Colorado Rapids and the Bulldog Supporters Group to the Denver Nuggets to Dick’s Sporting Goods. Their Facebook group advertises fundraisers for DSS practically every other week, from trivia to national team watch parties.
Brandon hopes this will serve as a foundation for a city-wide homeless soccer program, a presence in many of the homeless and youth shelters in Denver culminating in a city-wide league, something SSUSA’s own development plan calls for. Brandon also wants to organize a regional championship for the Western United States that will give players from different cities more opportunity to interact and build friendships.
Denver’s game against Ann Arbor Sunday morning started very much like the ones against Los Angeles and Chicago; within 30 seconds, they had allowed two goals. At some point the Michigan team added a third. It looked like more of the same, the final capstone on a “wait ‘til next year” tournament.
Then Denver scored, first one, then another, including Sean’s first goal of the tournament. Just before halftime they made it 3-3. Ann Arbor never added to their lead. In my notes from that day, it says “They’ve figured it out.” Braxton, Sean, Yidne and A.J. thoroughly dominated the second half. Ann Arbor got shots off, but they were contested, off-balance. They never really threatened to score again. On the other end, Yidne added one and Sean scored two more. Two weeks after kicking up divots every time he went to cross, Sean had scored a hat trick.
The win galvanized Denver Street Soccer. Unlike Seattle, who went on to win their bracket, Ann Arbor wasn’t a strong team. This was their first SSUSA Cup, too, and their players weren’t as young or athletic as Denver’s. The victory was more psychological than anything; they no longer faced the possibility of going home winless, and that I think helped them to believe in themselves. I don’t doubt that if they had lost to Ann Arbor then played Seattle they’d have been beaten by six or eight goals, and then who knows if the core four players would even have come back to Street Soccer at all.
Instead, they went into Seattle confident, the first real confidence I’d seen in them. When they lost, it stung more than the 6-0 or the 14-3 or any of the others had, because it was one that they very well could have won. Braxton, who you’ll recall was tough to get to stop talking the first time I met him, said very little to anyone, and nothing at all to me, for the rest of the day after his penalty miss.
It wasn’t until Denver had finished their tournament that I realized what their team meant to me. They fascinated me because they were still learning how to play soccer, still at a point where they could be taught something and get better immediately and noticeably because of it. They had so much potential that I wanted to come back and play with them again, or to coach them, or to somehow be in a position to watch them grow as players.
On my whole Rollicking Research Road Trip™ — three months and one week and exactly 30 states of travel — they were the only team aside from the U.S. national team that I rooted for. I sat in with the Timbers Army and the ECS and Section 8 in Chicago, talked with parents who were cheering their children on for regional and national championships, saw Manchester United and Kansas City play in front of a crowd split between Red Devils and Wizards fans. Several of those teams, particularly the young kids, I wanted to do well for the sake of the people I was watching with, as a karmic reward for putting up with me and my questions. But Denver I wanted to do well for me, because when they succeeded it made me happy, and when they failed all I could see in them was the potential for future success.
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 Which freed up a spot for A.J. to make the trip.
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 The structure of the Street Soccer USA Cup perhaps should have been covered earlier. Each team was placed in one of four groups at the beginning of the tournament, and played each team from their group in the first two days of the competition. Teams were seeded in a bracket depending on their performance in group play, where they faced a one game playoff to see which of four Cups they were going to be playing for. So the top 8 teams played four games against each other. The winners continued to play for the US Cup, while the losers were shifted into a losers’ bracket where the highest they could finish would be 5th. Denver was not in the top 8 teams, but with their win over Ann Arbor, they were placed in the bracket for the DC Cup, basically vying for 9th place.
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 Sean says he would have, that it’s his nature “to stick to what I say, and I told them I was dedicated.” But, he admits that it felt very good to win.