Some grants help cover lighting, irrigation, surfacing and enhancement costs. In fiscal year 2018-19, over $600,000 helped enhance 51 fields.
Other funding is for hard-court “mini-pitches,” which work particularly well where space is at a premium. Foundation money provides lighting, fencing, goals and benches for these smaller fields. Last year, 82 mini-pitches were built, bringing the total since the program began to 300. The goal is to create 1,000 mini-pitches by 2026.
But COVID-19 shut down nearly every outdoor space. Schools and parks closed. The Foundation focused on its other main mission: programming.
“Soccer for Success” is a free after-school program. Through partnerships with over 190 YMCAs, YWCAs, Big Brother/Big Sister organizations, local parks and recreation departments and other groups, “Soccer for Success” uses the sport to help promote health lifestyles at more than 1,500 sites.
“Soccer for Success” provides a uniform, ball, 75 to 90 minutes of play three days a week, nutritional information and mentorship.
Of course, in mid-March those organizations also halted their programs. The United States Soccer Foundation had to find ways to reach boys and girls stuck at home. Quickly, the Foundation pivoted.
“Soccer for Success at Home” became an online offering for youngsters. In English and Spanish versions, it includes fun drills, activities and tips, delivered through a weekly newsletter and videos. The Foundation enlisted big names, like Staci Wilson (who showed children how to improve their speed and agility).
Most of the activities involved only a ball. Some could be done using just a couple of socks. As with the after-school program, there was a health and wellness component.
Because some families have limited access to technology, a print version (accessible with a QR code) was available too.
Now, as the nation begins to reopen – tentatively, and not at all uniformly -- Foundation officials are imagining how “Soccer for Success” will look like this fall. The video package will continue. There are plans for coaches to meet youngsters virtually, via Zoom or Facebook Live sessions. In areas where socially distanced meetings are permitted, activities are being created that keep children in self-contained pods.
“It’s an accordion-type approach,” explains associate vice president of programs Sarah Pickens. “Youth organizations can be flexible, and adapt to changing constraints.” Virtual training for organizers will be conducted over three days in early August.
“It’s a challenge,” Pickens admits. “We’re moving into unknown territory. The coach/player relationship is so important. So are the relationships between teammates. It’s hard to replicate those virtually.”
Many people – adults and children alike – are suffering from “screen fatigue,” she notes. “We have to get real creative. It’s like Pilates: What can you do in a 5-by-5 space? How can you substitute a ball? How do you make sure kids want to come back? Coaches always have to be creative, but this is demanding an exponential level of creativity. We’re doing what we can to help.”
No one can predict the future of sports – including youth soccer – in this country. But, Pickens says, “We think the United States Soccer Foundation will be more important than ever. There were disparities between kids with access to soccer and those without before COVID. Those may increase now, and be even more apparent than ever.”
She acknowledges the recent national emphasis on social justice and racial equity. “That’s been the core of our work: bringing soccer to Black and Latino communities.” Pickens notes.
“We’re all learning together, trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. It’s a difficult space to navigate. But our mission has always been to serve kids, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”