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Street Soccer USA unites homeless players from across the country

 Street Sense (USA) 11 July 2019

Minneapolis was the big winner of this year’s Street Soccer USA, but during this tournament everyone wins something. For most of the players – homeless, street paper vendors or recovering addicts – being part of the game is just the push they need to start a new life. (761 Words) - By Staff Writer


Street Sense_More than a Game 1

Milton Marquez (foreground, in blue). Goalie for D.C., in green, Kenneth Belkosky.Photo: Ayana Bellamy

Street Sense_More than a Game 2

Kenneth Belkosky, D.C. Knights Goalie and Street Sense vendor.Photo: Ayana Bellamy

Sacramento missed the goal. It was New York's turn.

"GOAL!" The team went wild, jumping up and down and embracing. The Sacramento team walked over and shook hands. Then they got off the field so the next game could begin.

In spite of the searing heat, this year's Street Soccer USA Cup brought plenty of excitement to the Washington Kastles Stadium. Every player who came to the field brought more than energy, skill and discipline. Each brought a story of personal struggle as well.

Street Soccer USA uses the game of soccer to help get homeless men, women and youths off the streets. To be eligi­ble to play, competitors must have been homeless for the past 18 months, have been making their livings as street paper ven­dors or have been enrolled in drug or alcohol rehabilitation.

Players from 18 different cities across the country attend practices during the 16-week season. They also set both short-term and long-term goals for themselves off the field.

This year, Minneapolis captured the cup. But everyone who played gained strength and living skills, organizers said.

"Street Soccer is not about being a good soccer player," said founder and CEO Lawrence Cann. "It's about being a good human being."

Cann got the idea for Street Soccer USA while he was par­ticipating in a community service project called Community Works in North Carolina and saw how many young people were on the streets with nothing to do, and no direction in life.

"They had a lot of anger, frankly," Cann said. "They needed physical activity or sports to keep them motivated."

The first American team was formed in 2006, and the na­tional league was developed in 2008. This year, 16 ambas­sadors were selected as a pool, and from that, eight will represent the U.S. in the Homeless World Cup, which will be held in Paris, France in late August. D.C. Knights player Milton Marquez made it into the pool.

"Soccer is something I've always wanted as a kid, and I never had the chance," Marquez said. "I guess this means to never give up, and I love it."

Marquez was playing soccer while at Neighbors Consejo, a program that offers shelter and rehabilitation to the Latino homeless in D.C., when he met Abdul-Baki and other Street Soccer volunteers.

With the help of Street Soccer USA and his coach, Omar Abdul-Baki, Marquez has managed to transform his life. He found a job in construction and an apartment to live in. He pays for everything and is able to support himself. "All these people, like Omar, have helped so much," Marquez said. "We've learned there are other ways to live than on the streets."

Some players, especially those who moved from other coun­tries, are advanced while others have never touched a soccer ball before. But they are all there to play the game.

"Players gain a positive attitude," said Abdul-Baki, the di­rector and one of the coaches for the D.C. Knights and Arling­ton Tigers. "If they can be successful in soccer then they can be successful in other things in life."

According to Cann, about 75 percent of the soccer play­ers achieve positive outcomes in other areas of life, such as employment or housing.

"Homelessness is the symptom of the breakdown of com­munity," Cann said. "And sports create social bonds, which constitutes what people lacked in the first place."

Along with attending weekly practices, players attend off-field sessions with their coaches to learn essential life skills to grow both physically and mentally.

And the game doesn't end with the Cup.

Street Soccer grads form new teams and play against each other. Some work as coaches or informal mentors.

"The Cup isn't the ending but the beginning," Abdul-Baki said. "It's the bridge to the next step in their lives."

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