“It was crazy,” Gabriel tells me on a recent afternoon. “There were too many people.”
He says he understands why five D.C. police officers showed up and made his team leave the field. Even so, he went home that day disappointed.
“It was pretty sad that we had to finish our practice early,” he says. “We were just about to play games.”
A nonprofit organization that works to make high-level soccer training accessible to low-income families in the Washington region has seen two things happen during the pandemic: a need for the program grow, even as its ability to find enough field space to accommodate kids who are eager to participate becomes more limited.
The motto of the Open Goal Project — “even the field, change the game” — tells of the organization’s aim to both diversify the U.S. soccer landscape and improve the lives of children who are too often excluded from the sport. The young people the organization serves come from mostly Black and Brown immigrant families who can’t afford costly participation and travel fees or get to playing fields far from their neighborhoods.
Many of the children speak a language other than English at home and qualify for free lunch through their schools.
When we talk about gaps — economic, education, technology — these are the children who tend to fall in them. They are the ones who tend to get left behind.
The soccer program tries to counter that, but the founders say that the past year has shown them in the starkest of ways that they can’t begin to even the playing field in soccer, or life, for these children when they don’t have a consistent place to practice.
Field space has long been limited in the city. But the pandemic, they say, has made it even scarcer because of restrictions on group gatherings, closed indoor recreational spaces and an increased demand for outdoor fields.
What that has meant for children in the program over the past year is moving from one borrowed or rented space to another. Twice, the police have been called on them. A few times, practice was canceled. Other times, teams practiced on fields too small to accommodate the number of players who would need to compete against teams in Virginia and Maryland that don’t face those same challenges.
“They’re not running around begging people, asking people, ‘Can we please use your field?’ ” says Amir Lowery, a D.C. native and one of the organization’s founders. “They’re not going around with their hands out. They have their own fields. They have their own space.”
They have what Lowery says he and fellow founder Simon Landau hope to give the kids in the Open Goal Project: “Somewhere to call home. Somewhere they know they can show up and it’s a safe space for them.”
He and Landau don’t know who is in a position to help them obtain that permanent safe space or what partnership might help make that happen. But they know they won’t find a solution for their players if they don’t let people know there’s a problem — and that it is exacerbating inequity.
U.S. soccer has long been criticized as lacking diversity. In 2016, the Guardian ran a piece under the headline “ ‘It’s only working for the white kids’: American soccer’s diversity problem.” That same year, a piece in The Washington Post had the headline “Soccer in the U.S. still looks like it’s for white girls.”
“What we’re saying is with the same resources, our kids can reach the same heights as other kids,” Lowery says. “They can be on the college roster next to the White kids who played for Arlington or McLean or Bethesda.”
The group has already seen that happen. About a dozen former participants have gone on to college and played soccer in some capacity, including one young woman who is now at James Madison University.
Even the field. Change the game. That’s what that phrase looks like when realized. College. Opportunities. Narrowed gaps.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, which has disproportionately devastated Brown and Black communities, the organization has seen more families in the city express interest in participating. It currently serves about 80 children between the ages 8 and 15, who make up four teams. It also supports former participants.
Landau describes the children the group sees as not having many, or any, other outlets.
“These kids would not be playing on another team,” he says. “They wouldn’t have access or the consistent support to be able to participate within the existing constructs of the system.”
He says the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation recently granted the organization permits for some outdoor space, and for that, he is grateful. But he also recognizes that those permits are temporary and won’t cover the group’s growing needs. A permanent location, he says, would allow it to provide more services consistently.
At practice, the children don’t just get coaching. They also get healthy snacks, educational advice and access to nutritionists and other health experts.
“The program is very, very complete,” Gabriel’s mother, Vilma Molina, says in Spanish. She says the group has helped Gabriel and his 10-year-old brother, Eduardo, with not just their physical health but also with their mental health. “I think it’s a magnificent option in this area.”
Gabriel says virtual schooling has caused him a lot of stress, but when he steps on the field with his friends he feels that disappear.
“It makes me relax and not think of the bad things that are happening in the world,” he says. He describes being able to express himself with his teammates “without having the feeling that people might not accept you.”
His parents came to the United States from El Salvador. Other teammates’ families have roots in Mexico, Honduras, Peru and several African countries. Most of the players speak English or learn quickly with help from one another, the teenager says.
“There was this kid in the younger group,” he says. “He just came from El Salvador, and in a month or two, he learned English.”
When I ask the eighth-grader about his future, he doesn’t hesitate in the way some other children might. He credits the program with helping him get a spot next year at Gonzaga College High School and says he “definitely” plans to attend college.
“I really love soccer and if I can, I want to be a professional soccer player,” he says. “But there are other dreams I have. For example, I want to be a lawyer.”
And his younger brother?
“He wants to be a doctor,” he says. “A doctor, or a soccer player.”
Even the field. Change the game.
Read more from Theresa Vargas: