WASHINGTON – The 2023 MLS WORKS + BODYARMOR All-Star Community Day may have been graced by many of this year’s ASG players, retired league legends like Eddie Pope and Nick Rimando, and even Arsenal Invincibles Lauren and Ray Parlour. But it was the event's collective and creative spirit that stole the show.
With non-profits and community-based organizations including U.S. Soccer Foundation, D.C. United Foundation, Design FC, DC SCORES and Simon’s Heart all on-site to celebrate the opening of a brand-new mini-pitch at Seaton Elementary (which will be available to both the school and the public), no one person was more important than the mission at hand: making soccer more accessible for neighborhood youth. This was done not only by the opening of the mini-pitch, but also by holding an event that included youth soccer clinics and coach mentor training to go along with soccer-themed activities for community members.
“It's about all the volunteers who are already here ready to do things like this, to get involved,” Pope told MLSsoccer.com just before he and Rimando jumped in to help coach the youth soccer clinics taking place as part of the day's festivities.
“It's almost like if you build it, they will come. And I think this is a great example of that. The kids are here, they're going to be here. [The pitch] is available for them before school. It's available for them after school. Maybe some community leagues can play here, teams can practice here. It just creates a new sort of safe space to play.”
Rimando, who, like Pope, boasts a bevy of MLS All-Star appearances and US men's national team caps to his name, echoed those thoughts.
“The first thing I think about is after-school programming," said Rimando. "Can we get these kids doing something positive? You don't know what's going on when they get back at home. So a safe place to play, like Eddie said, but also bringing the community together. … These kids will have a lasting impression on the sport, but also at their school.”
Self-expression on and off the pitch
Creating a link between soccer and other, more academic, forms of self-expression, like poetry and art, lies at the heart of DC SCORES and Design FC, who, along with MLS, BODYARMOR, D.C. United Foundation and U.S. Soccer Foundation, helped bring the new hardcourt pitch to life.
Design FC is a Chester, Pennsylvania-based organization that works with elementary, middle and high school students to encourage creative thinking, self-expression, and autobiographical storytelling through design. Usually, students in their program design their own unique sports jersey to express what means the most to them, but in the case of the mini-pitch, the organization partnered with DC SCORES to have local youth create the artwork in and surrounding the new field.
The partnership was a natural one, with DC SCORES also building bridges between soccer and other modes of creativity through programs that teach both the beautiful game as well as poetry, creative writing and service learning.
“For a lot of kids, especially at a young age, soccer and sports is a way that they feel most comfortable expressing themselves," said FC Design’s program director, Oliver Steinglass. “And to be able to help them expand that beyond just playing but also thinking critically and thinking creatively, I think that can help them as well.”
Another believer in fostering creativity development both on and off the pitch? Arsenal FC legend Lauren, a key starter on the Gunners' 2003-04 side that became the only team to ever go undefeated for an entire Premier League season.
“I believe that you can kind of stress yourself in soccer. When you have another thing to do because you're painting, your brain is connected with both sport and enjoyment,” said Lauren. “If that boy or girl gets to do both things, I believe that it will help them to get to a target. Because if they focus in just one thing, they might not get what they're looking for. But if they're focusing on both things, you might not get that one, but you might get the other."
Beyond individual development for kids, Rimando and Pope believe community programs like DC SCORES and Design FC, along with accessible neighborhood pitches, can have an impact on the stateside growth of the game.
“It's like we talk about creating better players, and it's almost a dream, but for every other country, it starts like this. This is how they started. They're in small communities because the parents, the grandparents, great grandparents all play. And now we're kind of creating that,” said Pope. “... You’re sort of indoctrinating the sport for new communities and new kids."
Added Rimando: "How many kids are we losing out in America that don't have access to these courts? And now that these are here, who knows who's going to pop out of the woods and be the next Eddie Pope, Marco Etcheverry or whoever it is."