Chris Trevino

“What event is this?” the New Yorker asked from behind her designer sunglasses as she gazed at the two soccer games in motion, her chocolate and caramel bulldog panting beside her. “The Street Soccer USA Cup,” someone replied. The woman, content with the answer, turned back to the action.

“The players are homeless.” Even from behind her shades, you could see her eyes widen, she took a slight step back and turned, managing a single hushed word.

“Wow.”

It’s amazing the power a label can have. Whether the label carries the prestige of “Olympian” or the burden of “homeless,” it sets the bar for society’s expectations.

And nothing captures our attention like stories of those expectations being surpassed. They make us question what we once thought possible. For four days hundreds of individuals from across the country shed their labels, discarded their limits. They entered into the concrete jungle that is New York City for the 2012 Street Soccer USA Cup. They emerged as shining examples of humanity.

On Sept. 14, 1934 the dedication ceremonies for Sara D. Roosevelt Park brought promises of “the birth of the Lower East Side.” For the next 84 years, the park, and the neighborhood around it, would provide a haven for generations of immigrant families. It was Roosevelt Park that became the main venue for this year’s Street Soccer USA Cup, with two street soccer courts accommodating the dozens of games 20 teams played on July 26 and 27.

The game of street soccer resembles futsal, a variation of soccer played on a small pitch
with a hard, smooth surface. There are four players to each side; three field players and a keeper. What makes the game unique is two distinct rules that both inhibit and invite scoring. The mouth of the goal is a half circle roughly six-yards long, splashed a bright red or blue. No field player is allowed inside this crease, much like in lacrosse. Secondly, a defending team can only have two defenders back. In other words, it was always a three-on-two advantage for the attacking team, with goals being scored at the pace of New York minutes.

The hours leading up to the tournament’s July 26 opening were marked by unpredictability that is a hallmark of New York. Glitches with housing for a few of the teams left organizers scrambling to find other options late on the night of July 25. Court set up was behind schedule, materials sent to wrong addresses, and rain clouds loomed ominously over volunteers serving breakfast to players trying on jerseys and cleats. The chaos only added to the excitement for player Grayson Little “Honestly coming from East L.A., this is pretty cool,” said Little, as he shook his complementary thimble-sized orange juice. Little, 21, who in spite of his name, stands six-foot-two, hails originally from Landstuhl, Germany, and has been living in a transitional housing program since February.

“Just being here, it does a lot,” he added before downing another juice.

The Cup kicked off with host city New York vs. Dallas and Charlotte pitted against St. Louis. The games were quickly put on hold by the pummeling rain. A policeman’s warning of a “tornado watch” sent people scrambling under tents. Only one team welcomed it. “We were like ‘Yes it’s raining! We have an advantage” said Calvin Hill, captain of the Seattle team with a huge grin on his face.

After 15 minutes the storm passed and games were back underway. But the effects of the downpour were still felt on the courts. The rubber surfaces became slick and puddled. Players fell like children at their skating lessons, they crashed into barriers going for loose balls. They were now playing on a giant Slip-n-Slide. But they managed. Players and volunteers coped with the conditions and the Cup moved smoothly on from there. From the first matches of group play, the favorites to win it all established themselves: the defending champions of Minneapolis. The intense team from Charlotte. The well-coached men from Montgomery County, Md. The dark horse team that was New York.

“Everyday we are playing for something bigger than just winning or losing. We are playing for a better life and we are playing for our own pride,” Street Soccer USA founder Lawrence Cann told the crowd during a pause in the games.

“You show the possibility of the better person I can be and the better person all of you can be, so don’t take that lightly. Everyday, every game think about what you can be and know that you inspire others. That’s what this Cup is about.”

Soon he stepped aside from the microphone and a player from the New York Red Bulls took his place. He asked who was going to win the tournament. Everyone cheered.

Winning and losing can be seen as black and white. There’s first place and then everyone else. Just more labels of “winner” and “loser” that shape competition. But in the world of street soccer, the stakes are different. Sure the players want to win, sure they play as hard as they can and cheer for teammates. Yet, it’s not the end of the world to lose 9-0 or even 1-0. Why? Well because the athletes have gone through much more than the pain of losing a game.

Ronnie Love, 24, came to New York for a job interview. Upon returning to his hotel he found that his belongings were stolen. He was forced to check into a shelter. Johnny Vernon of Dallas, 36, was caught up with drugs that put a stranglehold on his life. Jay Dee made it through 19 years of foster care after she was taken away from her mother, who abused drugs and alcohol. Peterson Saby, who emigrated from Haiti as a 16-year old now lives on the street. Gray, the Seattle captain, came looking for a better education and to escape war that plauged West Africa. He was kicked out of his house over a disagreement and lived on the streets off and on for over a year. While all their stories are different they are all the same in respect to what brought them here: a soccer ball. “A lot of these kids have had a tough time,” said Kathy Wall, a supervisor for the San Francisco team and Colombia native. “This is [why this is] is a great program because it gives them a great opportunity to do something special with their lives.” Because of this the wins and losses pale in comparison to what the program offers: an opportunity, an experience or even a new friend.

“Where I live there is a lot of negative people, but when I came here it helps me be open and I feel alive,” said Love. Both Saby and Dee spoke described their respective teams not teams at all but as families. Vernon, going on his fourth year of sobriety, could not stop smiling when talking about scoring the first goal of the whole Cup, his gold grill shining as bright as his eyes.

“This is their thing,” said Michael Alvarado, 21, Vernon’s coach “This is the one time that all the people around the nation come together and they have one thing in common: just to be together and have fun. That’s the point of this. You see?”

Cann looked tired. He had to be be. The Cup’s journey had put the players, coaches, volunteers, organizers and its founder to the test, ultimately ending with final matches in Times Square.

“Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. But everything worked out,” said Cann as the city swirled past him standing in the center of the Square.

“This affirms people’s humanity and human beings are amazing, unbelievable beings and you have to affirm that side as a fundamental starting point and soccer gets to that…and then they feel normal as they should and that’s like a great gift and it relieves a big burden for them.

And it seems like a trite thing, a soccer tournament, but it is an incredible affirming thing for our our players and that’s why we are going to keep on doing it.”

After Minneapolis celebrated winning both the men’s and women’s Cup, all the players, coaches, and volunteers filed into the lone court for the trophy presentations. A local band played and dancing ensued, while players from different teams hugged each other and signed each others’ jerseys with inspirational messages. It was impossible for the thousands of spectators who passed by or stopped to watch to know of the stories or the hardships, didn’t know of housing situations or years of sobriety. All they saw were people. And they were having a good time.