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Get Your Kicks: Bringing Soccer to an Overlooked Community
Written By: Danielle Elliot
Chase is a sponsor of the FC Harlem LIONS (Leaders In Our Neighborhoods) soccer club. As part of this sponsorship, funds from Chase and other sponsors will contribute towards creating the first covered soccer field in Harlem to help FC Harlem provide year-round youth programming. The covered field project has broken ground and is expected to be completed by September 2016.
In 2010, the FC Harlem boys’ soccer team drove from New York City to Chicago to compete in a national championship tournament. It was the first time many of the team members had left the New York area, packed for a trip, or stayed in a hotel. As they explored downtown Chicago, they were noticed in their maroon and gold club jackets with the custom-designed lion and shield logo on their chests.
A few of the boys told the organization’s executive director, Irv Smalls, that they felt famous, that they felt important. They’d gone to Chicago for the competition, but came home with so much more.
Founded in 1991 as Harlem Youth Soccer, the organization has expanded immensely under Smalls’ guidance. “Sport is the draw to bring them in, but [our program] is really mentoring,” he said. “It’s talking about giving back, exposing kids to more opportunities.”
Smalls, a former tight end for the 1994-95 undefeated and Rose Bowl Champs, Penn State Nittany Lions, grew up thinking soccer was corny. That changed when he watched the 2002 World Cup. “Soccer looked like life to me. … It was actually up and down, working with your teammates when it’s 0-0, coming back out to win the game,” he said. “It’s hard work. It’s working with other people.”
From Football to Soccer
After seven years working at Major League Soccer, he made the jump to Harlem Youth Soccer. He spent hours walking around the community at first, seeking an empty patch of concrete that he could potentially convert into a soccer field. The process raised plenty of eyebrows.
“My own community was like, ‘What are you up to? We don’t play soccer. You’re trying to change the neighborhood. You’re coming here in your suit, trying to change the community,'” he said.
When Smalls heard the name FC Harlem was part of the club’s early identity, he had the name officially changed. The next step in the rebranding was a new logo and jerseys, then partnerships with the Premier League’s Chelsea FC. When the team was invited to an event in Manhattan to see David Beckham, Smalls instead convinced Major League Soccer and the stars to come to Harlem.
“It helps encourage [our boys] to be really future-minded and to think about what they can do, what the possibilities are just by seeing [Beckham and others] coming to the community,” said Smalls. The boys have also visited the JPMorgan Chase headquarters in New York, the Google headquarters in California, and elite high schools across the country for a look at the doors that are open to them.
Heartbeat of the Community
“On any given Saturday in Harlem, you may stumble across a crowd of young men in their soccer uniforms waiting for Irv, their director, mentor, and friend,” says Victoria Dillard, whose son played for FC Harlem for seven years. “To me, this is the most valuable part of the league. This is the heartbeat, because it nurtures our young men and supports their right to dream. There is a connection between Irv and his players that for many of our youth doesn’t exist at home.”
Late next year, they’ll unveil the biggest addition yet: A year-round covered soccer facility in the heart of Harlem, thanks in part to support from Chase.
“Supporting community programs is a big part of what we do at Chase,” said Frank Nakano, head of Sports and Entertainment for JPMorgan Chase. “We have made a direct impact on the participants on and off the field under Irv’s leadership and is meaningful to the Harlem community. We’re really proud be a part of a team that provides these kids a facility like this.”
“I can’t even tell you everything that we’re planning on doing with this facility,” Smalls said. “These are the sort of things I’m looking to do through soccer, through this organization, and positively impacting this community, and [Chase] is going to be a major player in that. Their commitment on the new facility is just incredible.”
Smalls plans to expand the program in the coming years, adding a clubhouse and an afterschool program. For now, though, he is concentrating on the new facility.
“These kids deserve the best, like everyone else,” Smalls said. “We have this thing with the three Cs: Be confident, competent, and caring. That’s really what they should get out of this program.”
The new field, he added, is “a place they can call their own, and that’s so important.”
Danielle Elliot is a freelance journalist based in New York. She has written features for National Geographic, The Atlantic, Grantland, Vice Sports, Yahoo Sports, and other outlets. She has produced for NBC, Fox Sports, and others.