The goal: To build 1,000 small soccer fields -- hard-court surfaces suited for organized soccer programs and pickup games – by 2026 in urban areas and under-served communities that lack playing space. We checked in with Ed Foster-Simeon, the U.S. Soccer Foundation President & CEO since 2008, for an update on the project.
SOCCER AMERICA: What has been the latest progress on the small-field project?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: We recently collaborated with Houston Dynamo owners Jake Silverstein and Ben Guill to create 15 mini-pitches in Houston over the next five years.
SA: How many have been built so far across the nation to reach the goal of 1,000?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: With more than 250 already installed and with funding for 150 more, we’re more than a third of the way there. We’re moving at a fairly rapid pace. In just the last year, we helped bring nearly 100 mini-pitches to communities nationwide and we have plans to create at least 100 more with partners in 2020. We are on the path to transforming the soccer landscape in the United States. That's thanks in large part to the support of major funders such as Target, adidas, Musco Lighting, and Major League Soccer -- and several MLS clubs that are making significant investments in our game and in our communities.
SA: As someone who has coached and reffed in Oakland for nearly two decades and also traveled to many different suburban areas to coach and observe soccer, it's obvious there's a major difference in the availability of space for kids to play soccer in various communities. What is the disparity of playing space across the nation?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: According to the National Trust for Public Land, one in three Americans – more than 100 million people – don’t have a park within a half-mile walk from home. With transportation and safety being major concerns, anything beyond a half-mile is simply too far for many children. That’s why the U.S. Soccer Foundation believes it's so important to build small soccer courts at schools and neighborhood parks a short walk or bike ride from where children in under-served communities live and go to school.
SA: 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the 1994 World Cup that spawned the Foundation. Obviously soccer's popularity has risen dramatically for several reasons. Has that changed the focus of the Foundation?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: The Foundation continues to consider all the various ways in which it can support the sport. However, we place a special emphasis on creating access and opportunities for children growing up in low-income and poverty households.
From the increasing costs associated with organized team sports to a lack of access, too many barriers stand between children and the chance to play. There is great concern about a future in which large numbers of children miss out on the many health and social benefits of playing team sports. The Aspen Institute’s 2019 Project Play Summit brought much needed attention to the state of play for children in our country, citing that the participation rates for many youth sports are stagnant or in decline.
But there is a particular sense of urgency to bring soccer to children growing up in underserved communities. These children have not participated as fully as we would have liked in the phenomenal growth of our game during the last 25 years. One of the most basic barriers is the lack of safe places to play that are easily accessible.
SA: How hard is that to accomplish that in the inner city?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: One of the biggest challenges is securing the resources to revitalize public spaces and ensuring that we are putting them in the places where community members want them. We have a comprehensive community engagement process to help us accomplish this and we are always gaining feedback on how to make them better. One example of this progress is our partnership with Musco Lighting. The introduction of an innovative new mini-pitch system developed by Musco takes us to the next level. Like our original model, these small, customized, hard-court surfaces are perfectly suited for organized soccer programs and pick-up games.
This new model is complete with lighting, fencing, goals, benches, ADA-compliant access, and lockable equipment storage, providing quality playing surfaces for kids and adults while transforming the look and feel of neighborhoods. The inclusion of lighting extends the hours the fields can be used and increases programmatic opportunities. That's crucial when the number of daylight hours are limited.
SA: How confident are you about the "It’s Everyone's Game" project's success so far?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: Very. It's making a real and measurable impact.
Community members and organizations tell us that the mini-pitches are frequently used and that they are a unifying force in the community. We hear about mini-pitches bringing kids and families from different schools, backgrounds, and neighborhoods together to play, and how the addition of the lighting keeps kids active and having fun past daylight hours.
According to a survey of community partners, 98% say that people in the community are more active and 98% say that their community feels safer because of the mini-pitch. Ninety-four percent also say the mini-pitch serves as a community hub. In addition, nearly one-third of mini-pitch users are new to soccer. That demonstrates that mini-pitches can be used to grow the game and present some communities with their first introduction to the sport.
One day after a mini-pitch opened in the Portland metropolitan area, we heard from the school district that the impact of the new pitch could already been seen.
“Students and staff say that the whole outdoor area looks so much nicer and really brightens their day,” said a member of the school district in a report. “When I left work yesterday, a group of elementary-age girls were out on the mini-pitch playing a game, and it made me so happy to see kids out there using it already just a day after it opened. It’s a great asset that our community will be enjoying for years to come.”
These spaces are also home to our Soccer for Success program and other high-quality soccer programs that teach fundamentals of the game in addition to helping children develop critical life skills. There is considerable work to do as we strive to make soccer everyone’s game. But there's no doubt in my mind that mini-pitches provide an innovative solution that reduce barriers to play and enable the game to played and enjoyed by many more of our nation’s children.
SA: Anything else you'd like to add or address?
ED FOSTER-SIMEON: We can’t do this work alone. It takes a dedicated group of partners, community members, and individuals to do the things we are doing to create more access to the sport. So we encourage other corporations, individuals, and community members to join us in this movement and get involved because, together, we’ll be able to accomplish that much more.