Sabrina Caserta

Soccer and homelessness intersected in the heart of Manhattan when Street Soccer USA (SSUSA) hosted their third annual Times Square Cup on Sunday, July 12.

SSUSA, a national nonprofit, has been utilizing sports development as a tool for social change since it was founded in 2009. Through soccer, mentors teach life and job skills to homeless and at-risk youth in 16 cities across the country.

“It’s a serious thing, we saw the benefit of it. We found out that sports are an effective tool to really help people. It’s crazy that we don’t use it more, it’s such a developmental tool,” said Lawrence Cann, a co-founder of SSUSA. “But today is about New York City. We want to raise awareness and expand the program around New York.”

With approximately 22,000 homeless youths living in the five boroughs of New York City, SSUSA has programs at several locations in Brooklyn. They are planning an expansion into Harlem and parts of the Bronx.

Nationwide, SSUSA has served roughly 3,000 youths, and according to Cann, they have seen a tremendous percent of improvement in the kids that participate – whether it be progress in their emotional or physical health, social networking, ability to trust others or even education and test scores.

“This is what happens when you combine mentoring and soccer,” Cann said. “It makes me feel like we’re on the right track.”

In addition to the attention the kids receive, SSUSA hosts a plethora of sporting events throughout the country to garner funds and promote awareness.

The third annual Times Square Cup drew in 125,000 spectators, a record number, and 32 teams—hailing from Brazil, Mexico, Italy and cities across the country —to compete in two pop-up stadiums at the all-day series.

Teams were fitted with UNIQLO uniforms and each jersey featured words like ‘change,’ ‘character,’ ‘strength,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘support’ and ‘unity,’ which was a way to showcase the tournament’s hashtag, #IPlayFor, and what it represents.

“This is so important to me because it’s my outlet. Playing soccer is a way to be at peace,” said Mark Walker, the dedicated leader of a team that travelled up from Philadelphia.

Chronically homeless for over two years, Walker has been a part of SSUSA for that time and is now receiving permanent supportive housing.

“It’s not just about soccer, it’s about life skills,” Walker said. “Soccer taught me patience. It taught me to stand up on my own two feet, to be strong.”