Chris Trevino

There is nothing remarkable about North College Street in Charlotte, N.C.. It is a plain three lane, one-way route, barely a mile long riding out from downtown. With a hotel, restaurants, a church, bus stops and office buildings, North College is no different from a million other streets in the United States.

Until you get to a place at the very end of the road.

That place is the Urban Ministry Center, a haven for hundreds of the city’s homeless men and women. It is also the place where a movement was born; the place where in 2004, Lawrence Cann founded the first street soccer team in North America. That squad kicked off Street Soccer USA, engendering seven national cups and more than 20 teams across the country.

The sport has touched countless lives since then. And a local team, the D.C. Knights, has played a seminal role in the North American street soccer movement.

Formed in 2006, the Knights enjoyed a successful run, fielding talented players and performing well in tournaments. They even trained alongside the city’s professional soccer team, D.C. United. The nation’s capital embraced the team and the street soccer movement. The past four Street Soccer USA Cups have been held in the District.

But this year finds the D.C. Knights in a period of transition. The team will not be journeying to New York City, N.Y. to play for the 2012 Street Soccer USA Cup on July 26 – 29. The Knights’ absence is not due to a shortage of talent, but rather, it’s the lack of a host organization with the infrastructure needed to support the team.

Neither of the nonprofits that helped the Knights get started, the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization operating out of a church near Dupont Circle, nor the Neighbors’ Consejo, a bilingual social service program, could provide enough resources, volunteers or clients to sustain the Knights.

Megan Hustings, a former team manager for the Knights and current development director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, believes that in order for the Knights to have a solid future, they need the support of an organization that provides “more stability to participants and players.”

The blueprint may lie in suburban Virginia, where a fledgling team, the Arlington Tigers, is heading to the tournament in New York with the help of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN). Even as they have been helping the Tigers get established, two passionate street soccer supporters have picked up the challenge of reviving the D.C. Knights.

One of them is Sarah Morse, who is a manager of volunteers for A-SPAN, and who will be taking the Tigers to New York to vie for their first Cup. The other is Hannah Smock, an employee at CitiHope International, who met Morse during pickup games with the Knights and who now volunteers at Tigers practices. They believe in the sport and what it creates.

“It is one of the most unique ways to build a community,” said Smock, who has seen total strangers become like brothers. The community acts as a support system, not just for the homeless, but the volunteers as well, she said.

And such support can also save lives, according to players including Milton Marquez, captain of last year’s D.C. Knights cup team.

Marquez emigrated from El Salvador as a child and struggled with poverty, addiction and homelessness into adulthood. Even after he enrolled in a Neighbors’ Consejo substance abuse program, he had a hard time freeing himself of his past.

“I never thought I was going to make it,” Marquez said. What saved him, he said, was a coach, Omar Abdul-Baki, the D.C. Knights’ leader, who Marquez now calls his “big brother.” And his team. Marquez, now 33, has been clean for three years, has housing, and found steady work in construction.

“I give a lot of credit to street soccer,” said Marquez. “ I never thought I’d be able to dream again.”

With stories like that in mind, Smock and Morse have banded together to reach out to service providers in the D.C. area and gauge interest for taking on the Knights. They are looking for another place like A-SPAN.

“Arlington provides a really good model for the re-launch of D.C.,” Smock said. “In Arlington with A-SPAN you have an excellent organization that is already in the community, has its volunteers, has its staff and has a staff person in Sarah who has a soccer background and a desire to work with the team. That’s really the most ideal model for a street soccer program is where you are working very closely together with organizations in the community that is connected with its clients.”

With the Cup tournament mere weeks away, Morse has had to temporarily shift her focus and energy on getting the Tigers to New York and making sure the best possible experiences come out of the trip. The real work will begin once the Tigers return home.

“We are hoping that after the Cup, since that will be under our belts, we will have photos, we will have videos and experiences from that, that we can take to organizations and say ‘Look, this is what we did in a little over a year in Arlington. This is what could happen at your organization,’” explained Morse.

Smock hopes that harnessing the momentum built from the Cup will attract serious interest from programs to host the Knights, so that both the Tigers and the Knights will make the trip to next year’s Street Soccer USA Cup.