Mike Stobe

MLS W.O.R.K.S., Home Depot partner to improve local pool

NEW YORK — In the world of MLS, Chivas USA defender Heath Pearce is a home improvement expert, relatively speaking.

Ahead of Wednesday's All-Star Game against Manchester United (8:30 pm ET; ESPN2/Telefutura/TSN), the 26-year-old joined eight other All-Stars representing MLS W.O.R.K.S. — the league's community outreach initiative — to help build the "Splash House" pavilion at Highbridge Center in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan on Tuesday.

The pavilion is a high-tech improvement to a public pool that will allow locals to use both the pool and the nearby gym at the same time — something that was not possible under its current configuration. The remodel also means that all of the 100,000 community members will be able to enjoy the facilities year-round.

Pearce got to work painting a concrete bench that surrounded the pool, turning it from a dated sea-foam green into a more modern neutral color. It wasn't the first time Pearce had wielded a paint brush, though, and he expressed an appreciation for the hard work.

"I did painting for a summer when I was 18," Pearce said. "I would do painting and scraping stucco of the windows. I don't miss it. It was in the Central Valley in California, and it was so hot. You had to get up at about 6 a.m. if you wanted to beat the heat."

Over on the other side of the pool, San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski teetered atop a ladder, struggling to drive a screw into a beam that would later support the pavilion roof. Other MLSers hammered nails and drilled holes as the structure began to take shape.

"When I was up in Toronto for MLS Cup I did some MLS W.O.R.K.S. stuff," Wondlowski said. "I helped out at a school, painting murals and stuff like that. I've not really done much building, though. You could see on my first screw I was a bit wobbly up there."

Though the MLSers' help was appreciated, the real experts on the project were the volunteers from The Home Depot and NYC Parks & Recreation, as well as members of the Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center and Parsons The New School for Design, who designed the pavilion.

Many of the volunteers had been at the site since 8:30 a.m. and were now working deep into the hot afternoon. Still, they remained excited about the work they were doing in the community, especially because for many, it was their community.

"We pulled some of our associates together from the five districts," said Lora Isolano, a store manager for the Home Depot in Staten Island. "We do local projects, and when we have a neighborhood one, we pull all the stores together. We do community stuff, like planning gardens to painting walls to building a homeless shelter. We do this a lot."

MLS has been participating the these builds since the MLS W.O.R.K.S. initiative was launched in 2007. Now in its fifth year, the partnership with The Home Depot means the league gets to leave a legacy wherever a city hosts a major MLS event, such as the All-Star Game and MLS Cup.

"Games come and go, but we have the ability with the power and the appeal of our players to do something that in a few years from now, maybe some little kid will be walking around and having a better experience at this pool because of some of our guys," said MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who was joined at the build by Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton and chief executive David Gill.

But despite the hard work, Garber said that it was never a problem enlisting players to help out with community projects, be they soccer clinics, hospital visits or builds.

"I like to think of our guys as a new breed of professional athlete," Garber said. "They still get excited about going out and doing clinics. They actually look forward to hammering nails and using those drills you hear in the background. … It really matters, and I believe it really makes a difference."