Playing Forward: Homeless Soccer in America

The 2011 Street Soccer USA Cup is currently underway in Washington D.C. Over the last several weeks, we’ve been publishing our report on the 2010 tournament. Here it is in its entirety. 

Street Soccer USA competitors

I.

Time has expired as Braxton Wellons waits over the ball, teammates and opponents arrayed on the  line behind him. His Denver team is down 2-1 to Seattle; the game would already be over if the referee hadn’t called a foul and pointed to the spot with 13 seconds remaining. Since the clock runs constantly here and there is no stoppage time, the foul effectively ended the game.

Except this penalty still has to be taken.

A miss and it’s all over for Denver. Make it and the game continues, not with extra time but with more penalties, jumping straight to sudden death. If it does get there, then one would have to think Seattle would be favored. A.J., Denver’s goalie, has been improving rapidly throughout the tournament, but the guy wearing Seattle’s gloves is 6 feet tall, young and fast. One of the court-side announcers has been referring to him as “The Nightcrawler” throughout the tournament, which isn’t the kind of nickname you would want to bet against in a penalty shootout.

The 2-1 scoreline is inexplicable, an anomaly for this tournament. Seattle has scored at least five goals in every game they’ve played, and Denver’s last two losses saw them outscored 14-3 and 6-0. Goals are supposed to come early and often here. The crowd could feel the tension of the defensive battle; they’re cheering the goalkeepers after every save. During a stoppage of play with just a couple of minutes left, someone in the crowd calls A.J. over. It’s Will, the Richmond team’s goalie, who’s popular among players and fans for his intensity.[1]

“What’s the first letter of my name?” Will asks A.J.

“W?” A.J. says, a little confused.

“Show me,” Will tells him, and A.J. jogs back to his crease, brimming with his newfound wisdom.

Denver’s come a long way since 20-3. Watching those games, I thought there was nothing wrong with this team that six months to a year of practice wouldn’t fix. Now, it seems there was nothing wrong that two days couldn’t fix. Earlier in the day, they won their first game of the tournament, a 6-3 victory over Ann Arbor in which they scored six unanswered goals after going down 3-0. Now they’re neck-and-neck with a quality Seattle squad. It seems at some point since Friday, they’ve figured out how to play this game.

There’s a bit of disagreement leading up to the kick. I hear someone saying that Yidne should take it, not Braxton. Whoever it is makes a good point; Yidne is probably the most skilled player on Denver’s team,[2] though his outfield teammates Braxton and Sean are quicker. Braxton, however, is probably better suited to taking a PK under circumstances like this. He’s got confidence, an extroversion, self-assuredness, and love of the spotlight that makes him one of those players who walks out onto the court before the second half flapping his outstretched arms palms-up in the air, imploring the crowd to make some noise for his team. When I was interviewing the Denver squad at one of their practices two weeks before the tournament, it was tough to get him to stop talking so he could go back out onto the field and play. “I have to talk and yell and scream,” he said then. “We need a team leader.”

At the time of the tournament, the game, the penalty, Braxton had been playing soccer for only three and a half months. He’s a basketball man, he told me, a point guard. He loves being the guy with the ball in his hands. Playing with him and his teammates out in Denver — in the summers they scrimmage members of a local high school team for practice — you can see how the basketball helps his game. His quick lateral movement makes him a superb defender; he waits until the man he’s guarding takes a touch to go around him then slides over and makes off with the ball. After this last game, I hear a Seattle coach telling someone about how Braxton was so fast, he seemed to have won every loose ball.

The goal looks small from the stands, and at 4 meters by 1.3 meters[3] it is small, roughly half the size of a regulation goal. Considering the size of the goalie in relation to that, a penalty isn’t as enticing of a prospect as it should be. I’ve seen previous penalty shoot-outs in the tournament where neither team has scored on their first two attempts, and those were players and teams with a lot more experience than Denver has.

So I don’t envy Braxton as he nudges the ball off its spot at midfield. He takes that first touch, then another little one, then another, each time pushing the ball forward at a slow roll. He can’t stop its forward momentum, or the penalty is over, and he’s missed it. The Nightcrawler has run out to the top of his crease. Braxton shoots. The keeper drops to his side to make the save. Braxton falls to the plastic court in dismay.

II.

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[4] 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,[5] which means that all[[6]] 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.[7]

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, 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? 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.

The Street Soccer USA Court.

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.[8] 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.[9]

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,[10] 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.[11] 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.

III.

In practice, Street Soccer teams play wherever they can.  When I practiced with the Denver team, our scrimmage was outdoors at the Denver School for International Studies near downtown, not far from the Urban Peak Shelter. We played 8 v 8 or 9 v 9 against the high school kids in a big field with Pugg goals at either end. The now-defunct Austin team practiced in a church gymnasium. Lots of squads — Sacramento, Denver, and D.C. among them — play in indoor leagues whenever they can.

The Street Soccer USA Cup itself is played on a walled-off court of hard blue plastic that’s just a little bit smaller than a basketball court. Goals, you’ll recall, are half-size. In front of each goal is a red semicircle a little bit wider than the goal that’s reserved for the goalie; no offensive or defensive players are allowed to enter it, and the goalie can’t step foot outside of it.12  The latter part of that rule, confining the goalie to the area around his goal, is especially important because of the next restriction, which is that the defensive team can only have three players, counting the goalie, in their own half of the court.

This leads to a near-perpetual 3 on 2 situation on offense, and also means that there’s always one player stationed at or just over half court, waiting to receive outlets once the defense wins the ball. Because the goalie can’t leave his crease, clearances to the corners can be an effective strategy because the defense’s forward player almost always has a head start. This makes the game more novice-friendly than it might otherwise be — defensive players not comfortable on the ball always have that option once they get it. These rules are meant to make the games fast-paced and high scoring,[13] which is important, because each game consists of just two seven-minute periods.

Plenty of scoring is certainly possible. In their third game of the tournament, on the evening of the first day, I watched Denver get beaten by Los Angeles 14-3. L.A. scored their first goal before the scorekeeper had even started the clock. The difference in quality was obvious; L.A. had been playing for longer than three months. But Denver wasn’t exactly making it difficult for them. They didn’t do enough to stay in front of the men they were guarding on this short field where shots can come from anywhere. They were passing the ball across the front of the goal — something I’d heard them warned against when I was at practice.

Their big jump in quality between the first and third days of the competition wasn’t the result of steroids or angels or a big water bottle filled with Zinedine’s Secret Stuff. Their skill levels took no great leaps forward, but their understanding of how to play the game in this context and their own best roles on the court did.

Hey, it worked for Bugs and crew…

When I was in Denver, Braxton tried to explain the team’s positions. He told me that Yidne was primarily an offensive player, Sean was their defensive enforcer, and that he could be “a good forward or centerfielder or whatever,” but that he would probably play goalie in D.C., because he doubted the others would want to do that. He went on to compare their team to the Denver Nuggets; Yidne, in Braxton’s estimation was Carmelo Anthony; Sean, Kenyon Martin; and he was Chauncey Billups.14

All that changed between the second and third days. They put their trust in A.J. in goal, rather than alternating at the half between him and Braxton. This allowed Braxton to affect the game more as a defender, preventing players from getting shots off, than he could trying to stop them as a keeper. They also made Sean their forward, when previously the position had rotated between all four players.

Sean Spencer is 19, big and fast,15 with a head-full of dreadlocks that dangle down past his neck and a long goatee. At practice in Denver he tells me he’s an artist, and offers to photograph or draw a cover for my book for “50, 60, 70, or 80 percent” of the royalties. Sean had been playing soccer for just a month and a half when he travelled to D.C. for the tournament. A few weeks before in Denver, he was still getting the hang of kicking properly.

It seemed to be a mental, not physical block. It was as though he was nervous, like he was overthinking the act of kicking before the ball even arrived. “He just gets a little antsy when the ball comes his way because he wants to score so bad,” Braxton explains. Crossing the ball was especially difficult for him. He tended to scuff the ground, and the cross would piddle out and bounce into a defender at the near post. In D.C. that’s no longer a problem. Sean hits the ball hard, if not particularly accurately, when he’s shooting, and his passing has improved as well. More importantly, he’s found a role he fits into.

The ideal street soccer team requires three types of players:
1.   Because of the rule where only three defensive players (counting the goalie) can be in the defensive half, you want a target forward, someone who can win the ball in the opposite end when it’s cleared out and hold it up until his teammates can get in a position to receive passes from him. So an Emile Heskey-type. Except he also needs to be able to occasionally score goals, so not Emile Heskey.

Would be a good Street Soccer player…ish.

2.   With only two field players allowed back on defense, one of them needs to have the speed and range to cover a lot of ground quickly. A fast defensive midfielder, capable of playing the angles, intercepting passes, and sliding over in front of his man fast enough to deflect or discourage the shot being taken would be ideal. Then he should also be comfortable enough on the ball to play it out quickly when he does get it.

3.   Finally, with a defensive midfielder covering the space behind him, you need a wingback comfortable in a one-on-one defensive battle, who can force players with the ball out of dangerous spots on the court and can make the tackle when necessary. And, if possible, someone with a cannon for a foot.

Denver’s players complement each other in ways that make the team as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Sean wasn’t beating very many players on the dribble in D.C., but he has the size, strength, and raw speed to be a quality target forward.16 Applying pressure to opposing defenders — or pinning them in the corner — plays to his defensive strengths, where he lacks the footspeed to take the ball away from an advancing opponent. Braxton is quick enough to cover two opponents on defense, and Yidne has the confidence on the ball to bring it forward under control, and take an accurate shot when the opportunity presents itself.

The team has potential as a defensively-minded squad who can counter with a vengeance. For their goal against Seattle, Denver had possession of the ball for some two seconds; Braxton stepped in front of a pass on the defensive end and used one touch to hit it forward to Sean, lurking in the Seattle half. Sean trapped it, turned, and fired a nasty shot into one of the corners.

IV.

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 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. [19] “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,[20] 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.[21]

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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[1] Will’s ready stance as a goalkeeper looks like a boxer advancing on his opponent, gloved hands balled into fists and out in front of him at chest height, eyes narrowed into an angry squint.

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[2] “Probably” because it really is close.

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[3] 13.123 by 4.265 feet. You’re welcome.

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[4] 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.

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[5] 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.

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[6] I didn’t meet any street paper vendors when I was at the tournament, but I didn’t ask every participant why he or she qualified to be there either.

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[7] 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.

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[8] U.S. Street Soccer National Team members.

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[9] 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.

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[10] Sacramento was known as the Mohawks; three guesses as to why that is.

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[11] 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.

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[12] Rather like the rules of team handball, for those of you who know the rules of team handball.

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[13] And entertaining too. I had watched a lot of soccer in the summer before the SSUSA Cup, but even with the wide range of skill levels on display, I found the tournament entertaining as hell.

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[14] A.J. at this point was still relatively new to the team, and it was unclear whether he’d be travelling with the team to D.C.

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[15] He asked me to describe him as “big as a tank, fast as a Lamborghini.”

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[16] By coincidence, he ended up with the number 9 jersey in D.C.

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[19] Which freed up a spot for A.J. to make the trip.

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[20] 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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[21] 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.

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