SOCCER AMERICA: Since its formation in the wake of the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Foundation has been involved in various projects but is probably best known for its assistance in building soccer fields. It has provided more than $100 million in grants for field-building projects in all 50 states. How did the idea to get playing areas into out-of-the-way locations come about?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: In ’08, we recognized that low-income kids really hadn’t been a part of the growth of the game to the level that we would have liked. And so we started thinking about, ‘How do we change that?’ Fortunately, I have a board that is very supportive, and obviously the Foundation’s mission is to grow the game, and making decisions that help us grow the game in those communities that haven’t been participating is right in our bandwidth.
But what I appreciated most is one of the things we recognized quickly is that if we’re going to go into largely low-income communities, we have to bring more than just a soccer ball. We need to be mindful that these kids have a lot of challenges in their lives and can we not only introduce them to the game of soccer but can we do it in a way that is actually helpful to them whether they become an elite player or not. It’s important they get some benefit from participating.
SA: What are the essential benefits of that “Soccer for Success” provides aside from getting some exercise?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: The program is designed to play small-sided games after school – 3v3, 4v4, 5v5 – where kids develop skills and a love and passion for the game. They just have fun playing, which we think is the fundamental baseline that you need. For any sport, kids should have fun, they should have a good time, they should have the opportunity to play in a way that helps them develop skills and figure out how good they can be at this.
Doing it after school at a school site or neighborhood park site or boys’ and girls’ clubs, etc., we take away some of the barriers. The kids don’t have to travel, they come right out of school and they play.
What’s been great about that is we committed for Soccer for Success to be made available for free to children in low-income communities. Ninety percent of the kids who participate in Soccer for Success are on free or reduced school lunch, which is a key indicator of poverty.
Last school year we were able to serve 45,000 kids and we’re on a pretty rapid growth trajectory. This school year we anticipate ending at 65,000 and growing rapidly in participation as we go forward to 2026.
SA: Why was it so important to have this designed as an after-school program rather than a weekend activity?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: We chose 3 to 6 p.m. because the Justice Department will tell you that is most dangerous time of day for children in this country, from the time the school bell rings to the time their parents typically get home.
Filling that time with quality soccer programming and well-trained coaches, we think is a huge opportunity. What’s also fascinating to me and very exciting is we’re working with kids who are ages 6 through 12 so for many of these kids it’s their first introduction to the game, and we’re making sure they’re having a fun experience.
SA: Who are the coaches and how much training do they receive?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: The vast majority of our coaches come right from the neighborhood. We train them how to be coaches. Some of them have some soccer experience but most of them are coming to the game just the way many people come to the game; they’re interested and they want to participate. Each coach gets at least eight hours of training to be a Soccer for Success coach, which we think is important.
We give them a curriculum with all the soccer drills that you would typically expect but then we also show them how to incorporate into a soccer practice talking to the kids about eating right and leading a healthy, active lifestyle. We tell them what’s important for an athlete and for any young person.
Coaches are really influential people in kids’ lives, and what we’ve done is taken the position and given the coaches training so they can not only get the kids playing soccer but also help those kids who face a number of challenges.
We encourage them to stay in school and stay out of trouble and develop good life skills, and learn how to resolve challenges, and learn to become good, healthy, productive citizens. It’s kind of amazing.
SA: What is amazing?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: There’s all kinds of evidence now around this idea of sport as a vehicle to build confidence, self-worth. We’ve taken an evidence-based approach at the Foundation. We’ve gone the extra step instead of just saying, ‘Soccer is good for you, believe me, trust me.’ We’ve done independent research that showed the kids who participate in “Soccer for Success” have improved health outcomes in terms of their cardiovascular fitness, in terms of their body-mass index.
Kids who are at the greatest risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease show significant improvement by participation in this program. Eighty-one percent of the kids in the program feel better about their future. It’s uplifting, they feel better about themselves, about the future.
When you live in a low-income community as a child, there’s not a lot to feel great about. Let’s just be honest about it. If you can bring something into a child’s life that is positive and connects them with a caring coach and mentor who’s there to encourage them and show them a couple of little things but let them self-learn by their own perseverance, you can’t help but make a difference.
SA: How did you overcome the issues of inner-city blight and rough neighborhoods not conducive to children and community activities?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: The idea that the U.S. Soccer Foundation was going to parachute in from Washington, D.C. and bring in coaches to do all this stuff doesn’t make sense. At the end of the day, you want the community to own the soccer in their community. You want it to be theirs. The way you do that is train people and give them the support they need to be able to deliver the programming.
We quickly realized that there weren’t a lot of safe places to play in those neighborhoods. That’s when we thought of building these mini-pitches. To put a futsal court on a school playground is a great asset to that community, not only for the kids but for the broader community that wants to play when the kids are not on there. We committed to the idea of making these easily accessible for kids.
Eighty percent of kids who live in households that make $25,000 or less don’t participate in team sports, and only 20 percent of families in urban communities live within a half a mile of a park. This is a big problem and a broader problem than just soccer. Kids aren’t playing the sports that we want them to play.
As a leader in the game of soccer, we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that kids have access and opportunity to play this game because we think this game is great for reasons I don’t have to tell you. Both boys and girls get to play, its not a high-cost sport in terms of equipment and whatnot. It’s a game that we think can be transformative.
SA: What are the demographics of the participants and the coaches involved in the program?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: Fifty percent of the kids are Latino, [34 percent] are African-American, and the rest are mixed. About 40 percent of our participants are female and we hope to get that up to 50-50 in the near future.
Fifty percent of the coaches live in the community and the ratio of men-to-women is [56 percent to 44 percent] and as with the participants we’re working to get to 50-50.
SA: Away from the structured time after school do the mini-pitches get a lot of use from the same kids?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: Is there some programming sometimes to catalyze and get things going? Yeah. But quite frankly, if we’re truly successful, kids will be going down on their own and playing. We’re seeing that already; kids come out at recess and play on their own, because it’s on the schoolyard, and what’s what you really want.
We live in this nostalgia world and say, ‘Well why don’t the kids just go out and play in streets like I used to do?’ Even in middle-class communities parents are not letting their kids go out and roam like I did when I was a kid. In many of the communities we are in, safety is a very real concern.
If can create a place where parents know their kids are having fun and are safe and there’s somebody around that is keeping an eye on things, that’s all the people need. If they don’t feel it’s safe, Johnny or Jane is sitting at home on the couch watching TV.
Will some of these kids be good? Yeah, every national-team player started out as a rec player. They started playing somewhere. But at the end of the day we know that less than one percent of the kids will reach that kind of level.
SA: And you see the far-reaching effects of these programs as ways to broaden the game’s appeal and popularity.
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: We want them to all to be lovers of the game, fans of the game, and participants in the game and believers in the game, because we think that’s the future: expanding the presence of soccer in this country, expanding the fan base, expanding those who have a personal relationship with the game.
What’s been really cool is that a number of MLS teams really get it. A few weeks ago we opened up our first 10 mini-pitches in New York City. We’re doing 10 a year over five years with NYCFC and adidas. What better way to engage the community than actually using your game as a vehicle to improve health and social outcomes in the community and create opportunities and access for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have it?