CARSON, Calif. — It's just a short stroll from the Home Depot Center to the Catskills Avenue Elementary School. And on Friday afternoon, some of the league's biggest stars and Commissioner Don Garber joined forces with MLS W.O.R.K.S. to make sure the kids at that school know they're part of a larger community.
Seven MLS players — including Goalkeeper of the Year Kasey Keller, Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong, Newcomer of the Year Mauro Rosales, Humanitarian of the Year Zak Boggs, Golden Boot runner-up Chris Wondolowski, Jámison Olave and Sébastien Le Toux, winner of the 2011 Fair Play Award -- joined a team of volunteers to help transform the school library at Catskills Ave. They donated manpower and books, took time to read to the kids, signed autographs and made a bunch of new fans.
"We don't have to beg our players to participate — they offer their services," Garber told MLSsoccer.com while watching Sapong regale a gaggle of second graders with stories of his first year as a professional. "It's what makes me proudest as commissioner of the league. Every year at [the] All-Star Game and [MLS] Cup, I get to talk to a bunch of guys and thank them for their service. But, you know, I just come and pat some backs, shake some hands, pose for pictures, while they're here for hours and hours working on community projects, and I really applaud them for that."
"Community" was the theme of the day, and Sapong — with his gregarious nature and big smile — was only too happy to soak it in. Though he's still disappointed his Sporting KC side missed out on their chance to make the final, the big striker is still managing to enjoy the experience this week.
"It means so much," Sapong explained. "A year ago, I was struggling so much, worrying about what I'm going to be doing with myself. Now fast-forward a year, and to have been so embraced by the Kansas City community, then being here for the Cup and getting a chance to be a part of this this weekend ... it's heart warming.
"We're banding together not only to make soccer be appreciated in this country, but also to let our good fortune rub off on these younger kids. Like the Commissioner was saying, just by us going out and being good examples and getting out in the community, it can make a difference."
Keller's been making a difference for more than two decades on the field, and now is looking forward to having some time to spare off of it. The recently retired Seattle legend marveled at the path US soccer has taken since his debut in the late 1980s, while keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the future.
"It's truly incredible where the game has gone," Keller said. "My first camp for the national team was in '89, and we hadn't qualified for a World Cup in 40 years. To watch where the sport has gone in that period of time — I went to Europe because there was no league in America.
"It's all about timing and it's all about doing things the right way. The league has had it's growing pains, it's survived some rough spells ... but now it's growing, and it's in a very, very good place to continue to grow, and that's because of the hard work of a lot of people who've done things the right way. And that's what we're seeing here, and that's what we'll keep seeing."