By Terry Jacoby
Atlanta Airport is famous for its “Take the Train to the Plane” transportation system. The city of Atlanta will soon become famous for its “Take the Train to the Game” system.
For the past 30 years, Soccer in the Streets has been trying to “break down barriers” while providing “access to all” throughout metropolitan Atlanta. The program’s goal is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to succeed by leveling the playing field for all, affording access to the sport regardless of race, gender, religion or socio-economic status.
This wonderful concept led the way to an ingenious project called StationSoccer, a collaboration between Soccer in the Streets, MLS club Atlanta United and Marta, Atlanta’s public transportation agency. The idea, created by Director of Strategic Projects for Soccer in the Streets Sanjay Patel, saw the world’s first soccer pitch built next to downtown Atlanta’s Five Point station, the city’s busiest public transport hub.
Soccer in the Streets Executive Director Phil Hill says one of the biggest obstacles for young athletes, especially from low-income families, is transportation and finding ways to get to the fields to participate.
“Most of our kids find themselves locked in their communities,” Hill said. “One of our board members (Patel) had an ‘aha’ moment and said, ‘Why can’t we take the transit system here in Atlanta and start building soccer fields on the green spaces at the train stations?’ Then we can find a way of connecting the 5,000 kids that we work with in the city through transit.”
It was an incredible idea that has helped kick off a system of city-based teams based on the neighborhoods around the local train stations. Each station runs youth programs in the afternoon and on the weekends which includes structured games and practices as well as pick-up games. There are adult leagues in the evenings that helps Soccer in the Streets raise money for the youth programs.
“We eventually want to set up a league of stations where each station will become its own soccer club,” Hill said. “This will be hyper-local and not like club soccer is where they have players from all over.”
The Five Points field, opened in 2016, has been a huge success and two pitches recently opened at the West End station.
“Yes, the West End Warriors will play there,” Hill says. “And they will have four or so youth teams playing there and travel by train to play other teams in the league of stations.”
Hill says up to 10 more stations could be ready to go within the next few years.
While competition certainly will exist and certain players will be better than others, the goal isn’t about winning soccer games and feeding players to Atlanta United. It’s about something much bigger than scoring goals.
“Our focus now is developing youth leaders and show them a way where they can help create healthy communities where they live,” Hill says. “We are about developing the young person and breaking down barriers so these young men and women can lead better lives.”
Soccer was the perfect sport for such a vehicle because of its international appeal and it’s an easy sport to learn and pick up.
“We have a lot of new players to the sport especially in the African-American communities,” Hill said. “There is a very low barrier to get started and it’s a sport that is easy to learn to play. We have seen locally a lot more interest in soccer over the past couple of years with the arrival of Atlanta United. Atlanta has become a soccer town and everyone, especially kids, want to be a part of that and there are a lot of families looking to become part of the sport.”
Free Kicks: Just the facts
- Soccer in the Street’s school and community programs are free for all kids in the inner-city of Atlanta. South side, college park, vine city, west side, and Clarkston are some of the community programs.
- StationSoccer is at Five Points and West End MARTA stations. They are the first organization to have a soccer field at a transit station.
- StationSoccer offers free youth pick-up training to all kids.
- Adult leagues at StationSoccer are pay to play in which the money helps fund the youth programs.
- Atlanta United’s debut Major League Soccer season was a huge success. The team averaged close to 50,000 fans for games during the 2017 season and has given soccer a credibility kick in the city. Atlanta United’s foundation financially supported the Five Points project, recognizing underlying issues in connecting the sport to the local community.
- The official partners are Atlanta United, Blank Foundation, TFA, MUSCO Lighting, Field Turf, MLS Works, US Soccer Foundation and the Department of City Planning
- For more information, log onto www.soccerstreets.org/