June 04, 2018
As the soccer world turns its attention to Russia – where 32 teams will vie for World Cup glory from June 14 through July 15 – Philly locals who love the sport find themselves looking further into the future.
They’re hoping to revive a pursuit that – despite its promise as the “sport of the future in America” for decades now – has seen the number of city youths kicking the ball around drop dramatically in recent years.
It’s a challenging prospect, and one defined by hurdles that include a lack of fields, facilities and funding. It also highlights a city/suburban divide.
On one side, there’s struggle; on the other, quality programs that come with a financial cost. But bridging that gap could become less formidable should a nascent, collective effort to bolster youth soccer in the city take hold.
Youth soccer organizers are teaming up at a time when the city hosts matches between big-name national and club teams, been named as a potential host site should North America host the World Cup in 2026, and seen its Unity Cup tournament energize immigrant communities from nations where the sport is culturally engrained.
Sure, it also comes a time that the U.S. men’s team failed to qualify for the global tournament for the first time since 1990. While the two aren’t directly connected, some footies say both deficiencies are caused by a lack of focus on building up, and supporting, youth programs across the country.
They say the conditions are ripe for a youth soccer revival in Philadelphia.
All they need to do is figure out how to overcome some hefty challenges: from expensive, dedicated fields throughout the city to training volunteer coaches for players as young as three and four years old.
“We’re chasing soccer back to its roots,” said Gary Stephenson, director of soccer development and performance for the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association (EPYSA). “Historically, it’s been there. The passion in the city runs much deeper than in the suburbs. It’s a sleeping giant.”
At a time when the best soccer prospect the nation's seen in quite some time – Christian Pulisic – stormed onto the scene from Hershey, reinvigorating soccer locally could pay dividends at future World Cups.
Eastern Pennsylvania Soccer’s headquarters are located in Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County, less than four miles from the city’s northwestern border. While short in physical distance, when it comes to youth soccer programs, it’s a long way off. It all comes down to moving away from the "pay-to-play" model.
There are established programs within the city limits. They can be found in neighborhoods with the financial wherewithal (particularly to fund travel teams) and dedicated coaches to sustain them, or within immigrant populations from nations where soccer is the sport.
“The culture is there. The history is there. We just need to find a way to support it." – Gary Stephenson, Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association official
That runs counter to the suburbs where, at a cost, youths join clubs which draw players from various municipalities as opposed to a specific neighborhood. It’s that latter detail that gives Stephenson hope for soccer’s revival in Philadelphia.
“The culture is there. The history is there. We just need to find a way to support it,” he said. “They want to play for their communities. In the suburbs, it’s all about the club. In the city, it’s community. We have that in Philly. They want to play for their zip codes.”
The state association recently kick-started an initiative to team up with existing soccer programs in the city. They’re so early in the process that conversations are still in the fact-gathering stage.
Across from Stephenson’s desk sits a multi-colored map of Philadelphia neighborhoods. It’s marked up with names of existing programs. Fairmount. Germantown. The Anderson Monarchs. Kensington Soccer Club. And others.
Those are the established programs, also tied into U.S. Soccer, involved in the early conversations.
In recent months, Stephenson started holding meetings and plotting a path forward from the current state of soccer that’s seen registered players drop from roughly 10,000 in the city to about 1,000.
That figure is somewhat deceptive, as it only includes programs under the U.S. Soccer organization's umbrella. While U.S. Soccer has a shade over three million youth players registered nationally, that doesn't include smaller, volunteer-based neighborhood leagues (like East Falls, where I used to coach) or youths who play pick-up games throughout the city.
Though it’s early – a follow-up meeting will take place soon – Stephenson said he likes the direction things are heading.
“We’re going into places we haven’t been, and it’s different than I’d expected,” he shared during a recent interview, noting that U.S. Soccer, the Philadelphia Union and other top-tier programs have started helping out as well. “We’re building contacts, asking them, ‘What’s your goal here?’ and “What do you want to do?’”
What’s been gleaned so far is that better fields, facilities and coach training are the major hurdles outside of the “pockets in town where it’s already popular and established.”
Expanding the successes seen in those areas throughout the city is one of the primary goals.
This isn’t as dramatic a challenge when you consider that some of the world’s greatest players ever learned their craft on dusty streets without much organization, but America is already behind those nations, where there are fewer organized sports options for kids.
“We’re out there. It’s not working as well as it could’ve been, but we’re working to change that,” Stephenson said, noting that city Parks and Recreation Department efforts have helped, as have the school district’s proposed after-school soccer curriculum. “There are more kids playing and wanting to play, so we’re looking toward the future.”
Bill Salvatore, of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, serves in the role of Unity Cup director.
That World Cup-style tournament, which spans several months, featured 48 teams representing their homelands (including America) last year. The draw for this year’s tournament – 52 teams will compete – is scheduled for June 7 at Independence Visitor Center.
The event’s made enough inroads to energize soccer communities across the city that Stephenson hopes the day will come when a youth version of it builds on the success of the Unity Youth League.
Salvatore has seen the numbers of players drop precipitously in the city as suburban programs continue growing. He thinks he knows why.
“If you’re in the northeast or northwest parts of the city, you can find a league, no problem. In the west and southwest, there’s a huge disconnect, and we’re working toward bridging that gap,” Salvatore said. “We need to shed light on communities without access to soccer.”
"I’d love to see a premier (soccer) site in every councilmanic district. Kids will flock to it." – Bill Salvatore, the city's Department of Parks and Recreation
Part of that effort is what brought about the Unity Youth League, he said, noting a need to bolster a Parks and Recreation league that once had considerably more teams.
“What we do know is that in the past 10, 12 years, soccer numbers are down tremendously. We’re not doing a good enough job of reaching communities that didn’t have soccer before,” Salvatore conceded. “Kids at a really high level are paying to play somewhere else. If you can afford $1,000, it’s easy to go to New Jersey or the suburbs and play on pristine fields.”
It all comes down to exposure in a city where some teams head to New Jersey to practice and others need to “steal a night here and there” on fields that adult leagues can afford to rent out, thus jumping to the front of the access line.
“If I could forecast 10 years out, I’d love to see a premier site in every councilmanic district. Kids will flock to it, especially if they’re soccer facilities and not overrun with football,” he said. “Football’s really important. I get that. It’s king from August through November, which is when soccer programs can’t get on the fields.”
They’re planning for a “soccer summit in the fall to get a lay of the land and what’s been going on.”
Salvatore chalks up some, but not all, of the drop-off to youths pursuing other sports or activities in their teens. At this early point in the rebuild, he prioritized the need for established coaches with a core team of volunteers around them.
“It’s no secret: We have less kids playing soccer in the city,” he said, noting that a league he oversaw in Roxborough lost eight teams in a matter of several years. “We’ll get everybody in the same room, a small group of soccer influencers, to collect some data, ask why teams are leaving and why soccer numbers are down.
“We’ll ask, ‘In order for your team to come back to the city, what do you need to see happen? Is it truly about field conditions? The competitive nature of play? Lack of quality coaches?’ I don’t know those answers.”
He said it’s not necessarily a Philadelphia-specific woe.
“The U.S. not being in the World Cup is the result of the neglect (of youth soccer) from the past 10, 15 years across the country,” he said. “Whatever we do now, we won’t see the benefits in our careers. The next (mayoral) administration will have to come in and tie it all together. We’re laying the foundation.”
While Salvatore and Stephenson are looking at it from a big-picture perspective, people like Mario Bono, Dominique Landry and Tariq Mangum represent the grassroots.
Stephenson considers Bono, of the Fairmount soccer program, his “first boots on the ground” in the push back into the city.
Landry and Mangum lead the upstart AC Fairhill program, which is exposing North Philadelphia youths to the sport, many for the first time in their young lives. (It's akin to the Kensington Soccer Club, a similarly established program that preaches "community advancement through soccer.")
They’re similar in focus – providing city youths the chance to play soccer – but different insofar as how established the programs are.
Bono moved here from New York City in 2001. There, the “environment was diverse and robust (with a) sustainable pathway from kids who are 2, 3, 4 up to 18 years old.”
Five years after arriving, he realized he’d missed coaching and was looking for volunteer opportunities. That brought him to a Fairmount group that had a robust intramural program.
“At that point, it kind of just took over my life,” he shared during a recent phone interview. “The growth was tremendous, but our challenges were facilities, costs and getting a big enough player pool (to further expand into the realm of travel teams).”
Fairmount is one of those established programs. Hundreds upon hundreds of children participate in its fall, winter and spring leagues. Bono said that they don’t turn kids away because of finances.
“If you can’t pay, we look for other funding sources. No one gets turned away based on financial need,” he said of the United Philly travel-team program that has awarded player scholarships, sought grants and had success in suburban tournaments. “We’ve started a street-soccer festival with clubs involved from all over the city, for kids who never really got the experience of a tournament before.
“EPYSA tries to do its best. They have no full-time person in the city, which they really need. It’s very different than suburban areas that can pay all the registration costs. We’re trying to think outside the box. That’s what we’re forming now.”
He agreed that fields and facilities are a major concern, a matter made worse by indoor facilities renting to suburban youth programs that can afford it, as well as adult leagues to fill in the days that private schools let them use their fields for free.
“All we need is one dedicated soccer field in the city,” he said. “We’re competitive. We want to attract players. I just wish we had something more stable in the city. We have a general idea of where we’re going to practice, but you never know what might happen. If an adult frisbee league comes along and can pay, we’re out.”
As the Eastern Pennsylvania Soccer effort expands, Bono will be on the front end of training potential coaches, something they’re hoping to provide for free.
They’re also talking about partnering with Uber to help overcome transportation issues to both practices and travel-team tournaments.
“The city has been making efforts to accommodate us. The mayor is really supportive. But the fields just aren’t there," he said. "A lot of people want to make a difference. This is where we would find the next top players. The momentum is building.”
Though it would take generations to establish the structure of suburban programs, some level of momentum is there. Three teams from Philadelphia (the U(nder)9 boys Fishtown Mutiny, U9 girls Coppa Valkyries and U14 boys PSC Elite) made the finals of the 2018 EPYSA Turkey Hill Challenge Cup the first weekend of June.
Less than three miles away from the Fairmount Park fields utilized by Fairmount Soccer sits an unkempt lot near “The Rec” at 12th and Cambria streets.
On a field without permanent goals or lines, a group of volunteers have been teaching North Philadelphia youths the sport since 2015.
This is the home of AC Fairhill, though field quality means all their matches are played on other teams’ fields.
In a sport where some of the all-time greats learned their craft by rolling a ball out onto sandy patches in Brazil’s favelas or Argentina’s slums, it’s closer to the sport's roots.
“It’s a beautiful field,” Landry said. “It’s just not made for soccer.”
An earlier inclination to start a basketball program fell by the wayside when his friend Dominique Landry suggested soccer.
He’d played it at Saint Joseph’s University, and with a dearth of soccer programs in Philly’s poorer neighborhoods, the idea felt right. (“Everybody does hoops,” Landry explained.)
To kick off its existence, AC Fairhill paid $3,000 for field space for a two-day camp. Ten kids showed up. They did it anyway.
A month later, they got a rude awakening. When they traveled for a under-11 club match, they had just seven players, one of whom was six years old.
That match did not go well, but the future has.
In early April, 24 kids showed up for tryouts, and about half of them were returning to the program which competes in a Parks and Rec league.
Last year, the boys and girls’ outdoor leagues featured a combined 12 U8 teams, 14 U9 teams, 15 U10 teams, 11 U11 teams, 13 U12 teams and 9 U13/14 teams. Twenty-one of the neighborhood programs have home fields.
AC Fairhill fields U9 and U11 teams, while running a developmental program for five, six and seven year olds in the fall, winter and spring. It relies on volunteers, including parents or people moving into the neighborhood with soccer backgrounds.
They’re holding out hope that conversations about moving to a better field will get the city’s blessing, and financial support.
Their mission, in the city’s most economically depressed zip code, matches that of the the state association's push.
“We can’t play home games, so we want to have a home here so people can see the games. We want to get inner-city soccer going. It’s an awareness sport,” Landry explained. “We want to the players to 11, 12 years old and in a position where they can go to a school with a good soccer program.”
To AC Fairhill, it’s about engaging both the kids and the community.
“In the neighborhood, we just want to create a climate where kids can just go out and play, to instill a joy of the game,” Landry said.
For AC Fairhill, it's not about reviving the sport citywide. It's more about developing the children in their particular program.
"Our goal is to take a six-year-old and develop them over four to five years, with quality training and playing year-around," Landry said. "We have to account for the lack of overall knowledge of soccer in the households we support, so learning the game is for the kid and parents."
From there, with a higher "soccer IQ and skill set," they'd be able to play for any club in the region.
"The ultimate outcome, now, would be scholarships to private schools in the area. In the future, we have plans on having our own school that the kids can attend, and continue their soccer training, at a high level," he said. "The goal being, using soccer and its culture to get the student-athletes opportunities for better education.
"This is why we call ourselves an academy. We're grassroots, but the goal and vision are to continue to grow and brand ourselves as a top development team, for our senior club and other clubs, and schools."
If a soccer revival is coming to Philadelphia, it'll take both the state association's push and programs like AC Fairhill reaching areas that traditionally haven't featured soccer programs.
It's in that grassroots effort, and moving away from the worrisome "pay-to-play" model. One way to do that is spreading awareness – like the Philadelphia Soccer Alliance – that leagues are available for kids who want to play, that the city can keep pace with the suburbs. That would help reduce the economic divide plaguing the sport for the past several years.
From Bono's perspective, there are some simple ways to invigorate city soccer not related to that bigger-picture idea.
"Start small. Don't try to do it all yourself. Find volunteers that are passionate about the cause," he said. "It's about strength in numbers: Align yourself with other clubs in the area that have similar goals. And make it fun!"
More than anything else, Stephenson's thinking about it at the most basic of levels. It doesn't take fancy facilities, and top-notch programs, to reboot soccer in the city. Heck, it's not even about catching up to the suburban programs at this point.
"Hopefully and simply," he said, when asked what a bright future would look like, "a ball and a space for anyone who wants to play organized or pick-up."