The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In D.C., a small step toward tackling U.S. youth soccer’s accessibility problem

Amir Lowery, executive director, and Simon Landau, development director of the Washington-based Open Goal Project. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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When his playing career ended, Amir Lowery began coaching youth soccer in the city and quickly recognized a problem.

“D.C. wasn’t truly represented,” he recalled this week.

The players were mostly from private schools and higher socioeconomic circles in upper Northwest, a makeup that left potentially many talented kids behind.

“I had a sense,” Lowery said, “I could find some kids from the inner-city who maybe needed a look and could hack it with our team and grow into the system.”

From that experience three years ago, a nonprofit was born: Open Goal Project.

Lowery, a Wilson High and Wake Forest graduate, partnered with Simon Landau, WJLA’s executive producer of digital media, to identify boys and girls from underserved communities who have fallen through wide fissures in a complex youth soccer system.

The failure of the U.S. men’s national team this month to qualify for next summer’s World Cup — a stunning misstep after seven consecutive appearances dating from 1990 — has renewed conversation about expanding the player pool through better outreach and making the sport more accessible to lower-income and minority players.

Youth soccer, for the most part, is a pay-to-play operation that typically costs between $1,500 and $5,000 per player annually. Scholarships are often available, but many kids from families without the means are left behind, a sad fact that hurts the general well-being of the sport in this country.

“They are just out there and they are not playing anywhere,” Landau said, “which is unbelievably frustrating.”

Open Goal Project isn’t a team or league; rather, it’s a facilitator for kids in need of opportunity, particularly those from immigrant households where the sport is popular but not played in a structured environment.

Lowery and Landau have aimed to find overlooked kids and arrange tryouts with established travel teams in the area. Through fundraising efforts, which include a line of soccer-tinged clothing and Lowery’s artwork and photography, they pay for transportation to and from practices and matches; offset the expense of uniforms, equipment and registration; and underwrite the cost of trips around the country and abroad.

Since launching the project in December 2015, they have placed several players with elite youth teams and helped guide older ones toward college.

“You want to see the best players given an opportunity to play at the highest level — that is the essence of it,” said Lowery, 33, a 6-foot-2 defensive midfielder who was drafted by MLS’s Colorado Rapids in 2005 and spent most of his pro career in the U.S. second division. Aside from Open Goal Project, he works part-time for the Bethesda-based MLS Players Union and coaches the Cardozo High School boys’ team.

“All too often, the game isn’t accessible to minorities,” Lowery said. “All too often, it’s about: Can you afford it? Getting those other kids on the field, that changes the game in the United States, we hope.”

Because the program is in its infancy, it’s too early to note any impact on junior national teams. But through their work, Lowery and Landau have steered two girls from D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood to McLean Soccer’s under-16 travel squad: Ariana Reyes, whose family is from El Salvador, and Precious Ogu, who has Nigerian roots.

“I met Ariana while playing pickup soccer with her dad,” said Landau, 30, a George Washington University graduate from Princeton, N.J. “She was always playing in the corner of the field.”

Landau was doing work with D.C. Scores, an after-school program emphasizing soccer and education. “I told Sean Hinkle [the program’s chief program officer], we’ve got to find this girl an opportunity.”

In cases like Ariana’s, parents are often intimidated by the system and can’t afford the costs. Landau arranged a tryout with DC Stoddert Soccer, the city’s largest independent youth program. She excelled there, then moved to the McLean program, 15 miles and a world away from Columbia Heights.

Precious also went through D.C. Scores and Stoddert before joining McLean. Last month, just a year into organized soccer, she was invited to a national ID camp in Boston.

“We’re not pushing them; we just let them play,” Lowery said. “We got them in position, and then they start outperforming everyone.”

On the boys’ side, Open Goal Project provided financial assistance for four young players, including Ariana’s younger brother, to attend competitions in Costa Rica, Peru, Malawi and Spain, respectively. Lowery and Landau are working with coaches at the grass-roots levels to expand their influence.

“We started with the belief that there were a lot of kids not even able to realize their full potential because there were all these obstacles in their way,” Lowery said. “If we can get to a point here in D.C. where we’ve developed a system to do it in some bigger numbers, we definitely think we can eventually change the face of American soccer, change the way soccer is perceived and the way inner-city communities approach the sport. The kids are out there.”

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