Small Harlem Youth Soccer League Attracts Some Big-Name Friends
By: Timothy Williams
On an overcast Saturday morning this month, a group of young girls and boys ran around a soccer field. Some tried haphazardly to make the ball go in a particular direction, while others executed crisp passes and showed off deft dribbling skills.
With the approach of spring, weekend soccer practice is again taking its place as a middle-class American ritual.
But the scene on this Saturday occurred in Harlem, a neighborhood with a shortage of playable fields and, until recently, little interest in soccer.
The children were members of Harlem Youth Soccer, a nonprofit club. And while organizers still get raised eyebrows when they talk about the club (“They play soccer in Harlem?”), it has garnered an unusually high profile for a neighborhood youth sports program in the past few months.
On Wednesday, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are scheduled to serve as honorary chairmen for a $1,250-a-seat fund-raiser for the club at Gotham Hall in Midtown. They are scheduled to be joined by perhaps the world’s two best-known soccer players, Pelé and David Beckham; one of the nation’s richest men, Philip Anschutz, an investor in Major League Soccer; and representatives from corporations including Visa, Nike, Adidas, Univision and Anheuser-Busch. Major League Soccer, an American professional league, is helping to organize the event.
The club hopes to raise $300,000, for after-school and youth leadership programs, and to help build a $1 million playing field. The club recently lost the use of a field at City College where it had been practicing, and the playing space it uses is often unavailable because it is shared by other sports groups.
So why is a neighborhood soccer group that in the past 18 years has produced few notable players and generated little interest outside Harlem getting so much high-profile attention? The club’s organizers call it kismet.
“I think it’s because it’s Harlem, so it’s a cultural icon and it represents a challenging neighborhood — people think of it as a concrete jungle,” said Rahsaan Harris, the program’s chairman. “Connecting a world icon like Harlem to a world sport — it’s another frontier for soccer.”
While Harlem evolves from what has traditionally been an African-American community with high rates of poverty to a more diverse neighborhood with high-rise condominiums and expensive boutiques, Harlem Youth Soccer is made up almost exclusively of black and Latino boys and girls. Some come from families unable to pay the club’s $60 membership fee, which is waived in those cases.
“The real goal is to develop these kids holistically in a nontraditional sport,” said Irvine Smalls Jr., 35, the club’s executive director and the only member of the organization who is not a volunteer. “There’s definitely a lot of talent up here among the boys, and probably the girls, too, once we are able to work with them more, and we hope they’ll be able to use their talent to go to college and become role models.”
Mr. Smalls, a former tight end on the Pennsylvania State University football team, who once worked for Major League Soccer as a contracts and intellectual property adviser, said his aim was to make the club a transformative experience for children. He wants to offer extensive tutoring, counseling and social services to team members, with the goal of opening a charter school.
The club, which started as an offshoot of Harlem Little League baseball in 1990, has grown to include 500 children in various programs.
The traveling teams, called the FC Harlem Lions (FC stands for “football club” and Lions is short for Leaders in Our Neighborhoods) are divided among five squads of children who range in age from 5 to 19. The teams compete against other youth clubs in the city, but they have been unable to play host because the field where they practice — the Jacob Schiff Playground, along Amsterdam Avenue between West 136th and West 138th Streets — is too small to be a regulation field.
Major League Soccer, which has taken a leading role in aiding Harlem Youth Soccer, said its aim in attracting interest to the program from influential supporters was not necessarily to develop young talent for the league.
“We don’t look to Harlem Youth Soccer as incubating the next Pelé,” said Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, which is based in Manhattan. “It’s not just about playing the sport; it’s about creating a group of engaged young men.”
Last August, Mr. Beckham, who now plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy, held a clinic for the Harlem team at Jacob Schiff. The children performed dribbling drills and played in some scrimmages. At one point, a group of youths playing on adjacent basketball courts playfully shouted at Mr. Beckham: “Basketball — Beckham! Baseball — Beckham!”
Not to be upstaged, Mr. Beckham jogged past his throng of security guards to sign basketballs, baseball mitts and Yankees caps. No one had a soccer ball.
Jama Adams, a spokeswoman for the Parks and Recreation Department, said on Tuesday that the department had found a suitable space in Riverside Park where a soccer field for the Harlem club could be built at the club’s expense.
“Especially in Harlem, where space is at a premium, the parks department has built or restored every available athletic field and is currently working on an interagency basis to create a new city field” for public use, she said in a statement.
The agency has had mixed success in developing similar arrangements. It has built fields for several youth groups in the city, including the Harlem Little League, but has been criticized because the fields are often kept locked, so that only those with city permits can use them.
Earlier this year, an agreement between the department and 20 Manhattan private schools to finance new sports fields and to renovate existing ones on Randalls Island was voided by a state judge, who found that the city had failed to go through the proper approval process. The plan, which would have granted the private schools special access to the fields, had been criticized by public school parents.
In the meantime, the members of Harlem Youth Soccer continue to draw stares. As the boys and girls practiced recently, children walked by carrying baseball gear, headed for a nearby park.
They gawked at the players kicking balls around the green turf, but were silent.
Finally, one managed a single word: “Soccer?”