Categorized | Education, Southern Bronx, Sports

United in soccer

Kicking it at practice one September evening. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Kicking it at practice one September evening. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

On a snowy Saturday in mid-February 2009, Andrew So and 25 kids from the South Bronx gathered on a soggy, slick baseball diamond to play soccer. It was the scene of a humble tryout for a brand-new league, but at the time So, a teacher at a nearby high school, was simply testing the interest of soccer in the community.

He knew the South Bronx was composed of almost 36 percent immigrants, 85 percent of whom are from either Latin America or Africa, two regions where soccer reigns. He also knew organized youth soccer was an unfilled niche that has had success in other areas of New York City, like Harlem and Brooklyn.

So still laughs when he thinks back on that inaugural afternoon of the South Bronx United, which in 19 months has ballooned into a five-team organization plus a recreational league composed of more than 300 players between the ages of four and 19. It is a rapidly growing enterprise, with sponsorships from companies like Adidas and JP Morgan Chase, an ambitious education initiative, and a coaching staff of nearly 50 volunteers.

Its uniqueness, however, can be found simply by examining the last names on many of the rosters. The teams are peppered by players from all corners of the globe — an astounding mix of diversity that serves as a microcosm for the assortment of nationalities living in the Bronx.

“South Bronx ‘United’ actually means something,” So said one night before practice with his U-13 team.

Fifty-nine of the 94 players currently spread amongst the league’s five travel teams are foreign-born, with representation from 23 countries, five continents and birthplaces ranging from the Ivory Coast to Yemen to Burkina Faso. With such a litany of ethnicities several of the coaches have begun describing their teams a different way.

“It’s like we’re a United Nations team,” said George Nantwi, head coach of the U-17 team. ”With just one ball, you can have 14 kids from all different backgrounds. There’s nothing like it.”

This vision first came from So, 27, who sought to use soccer as a vehicle for social and educational change in the heart of one of the poorest areas in the Bronx. A month ago, the fall season started and So, a slim and athletic-looking California
native, began preparing the alternate phase of the South Bronx United’s program, one aimed at education. He recently secured afterschool tutoring space at the nearby Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports where league participants can receive homework help and test prep five days a week. Already he’s facilitated standardized test training and college application assistance for the league’s older members.

“Coaching these kids isn’t the same as a suburban team or a Manhattan team, you’re also needed as an education coordinator,” So said.

So came to New York from Stanford University, where he majored in computer science and played club soccer when he wasn’t studying. In 2005, he started work as a special education teacher at New Day Academy in the Bronx and soon initiated an after school soccer program for students. He began noticing its popularity rise.

“I saw some very talented kids, from various soccer backgrounds,” So said. “I saw they were very skillful and I thought I could help them go farther. And I also saw kids that didn’t have the skill and I thought they just really wanted to play.”

From his initial tryout, he molded an inaugural 15-and-under team that played other teams from across the city. His club went 1-8-1 that season.

But interest grew, and by June tryouts for the fall league featured 40 kids — enough to support three teams and give So the urge to push forward with the organization. The following spring, more than 250 newcomers were there to join.

Most of the teams practice at Macombs Dam Park, the elevated turf space built on a parking garage in the deep shadow of Yankee Stadium, and on a clear Thursday evening the field was clogged with kids trying to butt in on So’s permitted practice time. Half the field was occupied by a youth football team.

The United’s home games are played at Randall’s Island, an unfortunate but necessary geographic inconvenience for a league still in its infancy. They have no organizational transportation so teams usually travel there together on the subway. A coach usually brings an armful of bottled water if they don’t have a water jug, and players stand on the sidelines without benches to sit. The kids sometimes share cleats.

For the most part, though, they are eager to learn and happier to play. Before the league was founded, soccer in the Bronx offered little structure until the high school level. But the Bronx’s diversity lends naturally to the startup of a soccer league.
Highbridge, which is home to Yankee Stadium and many of the kids in the United league, has nearly 50,000 foreign-born residents, more than half of them from Latin American countries.

The Spanish children only make up a percentage of the blend of cultures thrust together on these soccer rosters, though. On the U-19 team alone, 10 different nationalities are represented, and 16 of the team’s 20 players are foreign born.

“Whenever you’re trying to achieve something in a specific domain, you will invariably have to work with people from different backgrounds,” said Allan Lazarovici, the head coach of the U-11 team. “It’s a basic part of life and soccer’s no exception. I think it’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Nantwi, a Ghana native who grew up in the Bronx, always believed the area was in need of an outlet for its raw soccer talent. And in this league, the co-mingling of cultures on a given roster provides an indication of just how deep the talent pool runs.

“Soccer’s unlike any other sport in that everyone plays, it’s able to bring everyone together,” Nantwi said. “We’re bringing people together from all over the world, right here in the Bronx.”