Jude Cordon moved to Mattapan from Haiti in 2007 and was joined by his soccer-obsessed son, Nathan, in 2011. After school and on weekends, they used to drive around Mattapan and other neighborhoods looking for parks where kids might be playing futbol. It’s the world’s most popular game, after all, a sport where cultures collide, so how hard could it be to find a game in Boston?
“It was hit or miss,” Cordon, 45, said.
Then another parent told him about a new soccer program started during the winter and that would resume in April at Mattapan’s Hunt-Almont Park, which reopened in 2014 after a $4.2 million renovation, including a new turf field. It was close, free, and offered four days per week.
“Every week, he is just waiting for these practices,” Cordon said of Nathan, now 10. “It means a lot.”
Global Premiere Soccer, a private soccer academy in Waltham with some 2,000 paying families in Massachusetts whose children play on the academy’s elite club teams, runs the practices. And like an increasing number of clubs, has an inner- city program focused on neighborhoods lacking organized soccer opportunities. It’s an opportunity for residents who may not have the money to pay for programs common in Boston’s suburbs.
The academy’s program is among the latest efforts by community activists and nonprofit and private soccer programs to bring the game to one of the few places it hasn’t been able to penetrate deeply: America’s inner cities.
Some of Boston’s neighborhoods have established community-based soccer programs, but Mattapan wasn’t one of them, while the people who run the programs say they reach only a fraction of kids who want to play soccer. And only in the last couple of years have elite soccer academies, where families can pay a few hundred to upward of around $4,000 per year per child, gone into US inner cities — with a social mission but also the awareness that the next Lionel Messi might not come from Argentina, but maybe from Mattapan.
It’s surprising and, for many, unfortunate that a game played across economic classes elsewhere in the world, is in America confined mostly to the suburbs. It’s a loss for already underserved communities where parents are looking for affordable programs where their kids can exercise, a missed opportunity for American soccer, still seeking the popularity of football, basketball, and baseball.
Most American soccer enthusiasts blame the game’s lack of penetration in inner-city neighborhoods on competition from other sports, and the “pay-to-play” model on which American youth soccer has been built.
“If families have the ability to pay for fees and equipment, then the game flourishes, like it does in the suburbs,” said Ed Foster-Simeon, president of the US Soccer Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the US Soccer Federation. “But in neighborhoods where not everyone has the means, and there isn’t a lot of exposure to soccer, then it’s going to have a hard time taking hold.”
He estimates that on top of the roughly 4 million registered youth soccer players in America, there are at least 1 million kids who want to be playing soccer but are not because they don’t have the opportunity. “The appetite for soccer is huge. When presented with the opportunity to play, kids love it,” Foster-Simeon said.
In particular, the kids who are missing out on soccer’s popularity and benefits are ironically often those whose parents came from regions where soccer is undisputedly the most popular sport — Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa — and a growing number of African-American kids exposed to the game through friends or the growing number of chances to watch it on television.
Boston does have low-cost or no-cost organized soccer. America Scores, a nonprofit in New York that runs free afterschool soccer programs, started its Boston branch in 1999 with about 100 kids in four Boston schools. It grew steadily, and since partnering with the US Soccer Foundation in 2013, America Scores Boston has doubled the number of kids it serves from 700 to about 1,400 who play at about 40 sites, mostly schools.
The partnership also resulted in new turf soccer pitch, LoPresti Field in East Boston, which opened last summer, in part thanks to a donation from a former Harvard soccer player, Leighton Welch, who runs his own brokerage firm and is treasurer of the US Soccer Foundation.
Cambridge’s Soccer Without Borders started a program in East Boston that has about 340 players from over 20 schools, while Massachusetts Youth Soccer, the state’s federation affiliate, partners with Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and community centers to provide its free GOALS Camp, which runs June through August.
Carolyn MacNeil, head of the Boston Police Department’s Neighborhood Watch program, and Caroline Foscato of The Base, a youth baseball nonprofit, started the free South End Soccer league in 2007, and today the program has more than 400 registered players, including many who play in travel leagues.
There are also a few low-cost opportunities where, depending on the program, fees range from about $25 to $125 per player, per season.
Boston police Detective Anthony Davis, who played soccer in the All Dorchester Sports League and later in high school and college, runs the 10-year-old Roxbury Youth Soccer League. Thanks to volunteer parents who help coach and find inexpensive equipment and T-shirts, fees are modest and only a lack of space and personnel are preventing the program from expanding beyond the roughly 60 players registered this spring.
Finally, more recently, elite soccer programs have started to go into inner-city neighborhoods. The Boston Breakers, the city’s professional women’s team, conducts programs in Chelsea, Lawrence, and Lowell, and also inaugurated a program this spring where it buses lower-income fans to and from their games for free.
“They know it’s important for them to go into these communities who aren’t exposed to professional soccer,” said the Breakers’ general manager, Englishman Lee Billiard. “And it inspires the players.”
The Newton-based nonprofit Valeo Futbol Club operates inner-city programs in Dorchester and Somerville, with about 300 registered players between them. Costs vary by family, but are usually about $50 per child.
Among all of these efforts, Mattapan was left out. That changed last year when Global Premiere Soccer contacted MacNeil about starting a program, and she pointed them to Mattapan, with its new field. MacNeil helped spread the word, while the academy donated T-shirts and coaches, and put the call out to paying families for cleats, shin pads, and other equipment donations. By December, nearly 50 kids were signed up for the winter program. Some 150 players, boys and girls ages 6-14, are signed up for the spring.
On a sunny May Saturday morning at Hunt-Almont Park, 15 children were dribbling soccer balls in a 20-yard-by-20-yard square. Some beginners, moving cautiously with the ball, and others advanced, moving swiftly, changing directions and trying fakes. Parents sat in the bleachers or in lawn chairs along the sidelines, and watched their children while chatting about work, sewing, schools, and swimming lessons. Over the chatter and sound of soccer balls being kicked around, the distinctly British accent of academy coach Danny Gildea boomed over the park.
“Keep the ball under control. Keep it close,” he told the kids.
Later during a scrimmage, parents encouraged the players with shouts of “good try” and erupted into cheers when one scored a goal. The children were moving and getting exercise, the game was constantly presenting players with new problems to solve, and it’s simple – give a kid a ball and let their feet do the rest.
“He likes to run, and he likes to dribble,” said Jermaine Jarrett of his son Damion, 6. Jarrett grew up playing soccer in Jamaica, but switched to football and basketball after coming to Boston as a teenager.
Most parents interviewed in Mattapan and other neighborhoods with new soccer programs said the appetite for the sport is huge, and that the city ought to build even more soccer fields.
The city is catching on. The Boston Parks and Recreation Department, Northeastern University, and Massachusetts Youth Soccer are hosting a June 14 “Soccer Summit” where city officials and soccer leaders will gather to talk about how to bring soccer to more Boston neighborhoods.
MacNeil and other city soccer enthusiasts say bringing soccer to neighborhoods like Mattapan will make Boston as a whole a more diverse and more unified city.
“This is a global sport. We are a global society,” MacNeil said. “By virtue of all the cultures and languages we have in this city, we need something that connects us, and there is nothing better than soccer. This is a huge opportunity to bridge the gap between kids who have very little and kids who have more fortunate circumstances.”
Omar Sacirbey is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.