It’s been such a great summer for soccer in Atlanta, phrases like “record-breaking” and “unprecedented” are becoming cliches.
Josef Martinez set the single-season MLS scoring record. The team has clinched a first-round playoff bye and is in prime position to win Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and a spot in CONCACAF Champions League. And once again, attendance records were broken at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Yes, the present is looking pretty good for the Fives Stripes. But it’s the sport’s future in this city that really began to burn brighter over the past few months.
During the MLS All-Star Game weekend at the end of July, I attended the unveiling of the first of 10 brand-new soccer “mini pitches” being built in Atlanta as part of joint effort from MLS Works, Target and the U.S. Soccer Foundation to open 100 of these mini pitches across the country. All 10 of the mini pitches will be in public parks located throughout southwest and northwest Atlanta—areas of town that are currently lacking high-quality soccer facilities.
A primary mission of @MLSWORKS is to leave solid roots in the communities where our teams play, our players live, and our events take place. Proud to join @Target to build one of 10 new mini-pitches throughout Atlanta. Thank you @Target,@ussoccerfndn ,@ATLUTD, @ATLParksandRec! pic.twitter.com/6okbcx4PpV— Don Garber (@thesoccerdon) July 30, 2018
And in early September, Station Soccer expanded with the official opening of its two newest community fields at West End MARTA station. Soccer in the Streets, a local non-profit that’s been using soccer as a way to support and mentor kids for 30 years, built the first Station Soccer field at Five Points in 2016. It’s been a major success, so much so the City of Atlanta, MARTA, and a whole bunch of other funding partners are getting involved to help Soccer in the Streets greatly expand the program.
“We’ll be building 10 of these, up to 10 of these at 10 stations around the city to connect all the communities together,” Soccer in the Streets co-founder Phil Hill told me at the grand opening event.
At first glance, these announcements may not seem that noteworthy. After all, with the soccer fields scattered around metro Atlanta, will 20 new mini pitches really have much of an impact?
The answer is yes for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact every field is in an urban area, with the majority located in predominately African-American communities.
One of the main criticisms for years of soccer development in the United States is that opportunities are financially out of reach for too many people.
“There’s been this history of the travel soccer,” said Atlanta United team president Darren Eales said at the West End opening event. “You have to be in to be an elite player, and you’ve got to be able to pay to go on the travel squad, and that’s been a financial boundary, particularly in the inner city.”
When MLS Commissioner Don Garber visited Atlanta for his league’s All-Star Game, he pointed to France’s national team as the gold standard in terms of tapping talent wherever they find it, with players from all areas of the country, many of whom are the sons of immigrant parents.
“I’ve been totally enthralled by what is what happened in France and to see where those players have come from and the diversity of their stars that have seized the opportunity and in a relatively small part of the country,” he said. “And when you look at the U.S. and Canada, we have a number of cities that have huge inner-city populations that have not been as connected to the game as we’d like to see.
“We have underserved communities that are not as connected to the game as they need to be.”
The other hindrance to expanding the game in the City of Atlanta is geographic, with many of the region’s fields accessible via long car rides along traffic-clogged highways. The strategic placement of the 20 fields, all within walking distances of residential communities and MARTA stations, make them easy to get to on foot or transit.
Basketball courts and stray hoops placed on streets are ubiquitous in Atlanta and other cities around the country. Finding a pickup game is often as easy as walking a few blocks from your house. That’s not the case with soccer.
“If you’re from England, you know the first thing that the council thinks about when building a park is to put soccer on it,” said Eales. “The big thing that you notice when you come to America, having been to perhaps other countries around the world, is that there’s barriers obviously in terms of facilities because it isn’t the number one sport in the country.
“Programs like this I think are ways that we’re trying to think outside the box and trying to help that access. The first thing is the ability to have pitches that kids can use in areas where otherwise they might not have the facilities. The one here in the West End, in an area of the Westside, that’s sort of one of the more economically deprived areas of Atlanta, that gives accessibility.”
While a key goal of these programs is to bring new players to game, they also have the added benefit of giving those who already play a space without a coach, where they can show off a move they saw Andrew Carleton pull off without having to worry about making mistakes. In other words, they create places for players to have fun without the pressure coaches and parents normally put on them.
Opportunities like this exist for children in more traditionally soccer nations, like Julian Gressel’s home country of Germany.
“I grew up in a very small town,” he said at the Station Soccer event. “We used to have a group of friends that would go out and play all the time, you know? And then I had two younger brothers that as they got older, we would go and play together, just us.
“If you want to go play soccer, there’s a lot of opportunities for you to go and play. Even if it’s just a public field and it’s in the park, you know, there’s usually goals. They might not have nets, but it doesn’t matter.”
For Gressel, Station Soccer provides a “really big opportunity and a great opportunity for the kids to just play soccer at a young age and then kind of continue just as it is in London and Germany, or anywhere else in the world.” This in turn will make more kids inclined to stick with game for the long term.
His teammate Michael Parkhurst grew up in the significantly less soccer-crazy Providence, Rhode Island, but he credits part of his success with being able to play regularly with his neighborhood friends as he grew up.
“We want to make sure that all kids have that opportunity to get out there and be able to play with friends and teammates because that’s where you get good,” he said earlier this summer. “It’s not just practice, it’s going out there in all odd hours of the day, just being able to play free.
Contrary to what many in America may think, Eales says this ability to “play free” is becoming all too rare in England. When he was a young player, he spent weeknight evenings playing with his friends until it got dark, and on the weekends they went down to the local park.
But that’s changing, he said. In fact, he said Wayne Rooney has become known in soccer circles as his nation’s “last great street soccer player.”
“What we found increasingly is the kids are spotted at a very young age,” he said. “They’re brought into a formal coaching environment, and then by the time they’re 14 and 15, any of that sort of ‘joy de vivre,’ that sort of trying things on your mates, is coached out of them.”
He said that during his time at Tottenham, the club began to schedule more relaxed sessions where the players weren’t being constantly analyzed or coached.
“What we have to do—and it’s not just an American problem, it’s a global problem—is you’ve got to create those environments where kids aren’t afraid to try things, aren’t afraid to show themselves, express themselves.
“There’s a right place for coaching, but there’s also a right time to just let kids be kids and try things out.”
“Try things out” is Eales’ G-rated equivalent “try shit,” something few American players outside of recent retiree Clint Dempsey seem comfortable doing.
Deuce famously picked up that flair as kid playing on the fields of Nacogdoches, Texas. And if we ever see more players like him—those who come from working class backgrounds and play with a unique style coupled with tenacity—we’ll have to keep investing in programs like the ones being implemented in Atlanta.
Because maybe one day, the future Dempseys of the world will come from East Point as well as East Texas.
The best way for US Soccer to honor Clint Dempsey would be to make Soccer more accessible for underserved communities with working class families like the one that produced Clint Dempsey.— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) September 12, 2018