MLS community helps healing as 1,500 turn up for "Soccer Night in Newtown"

NEWTOWN, Conn. – There is absolutely nothing to distinguish the Newtown Youth Academy from another building anywhere else in the United States, other than 26 black ribbons strung dutifully over the front entrance.

It’s a tribute to the victims lost less than three miles from here last month in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and a reminder that the community has only begun the healing process from a school shooting that shook roughly 28,000 residents and captivated a country.

But on Monday night, there was at least a few hours’ worth of respite at the NYA, a stately, 1930s-era former hospital building quietly tucked back from a main street on the Fairfield Hills Campus in Newtown. What was a quiet, almost serene snow-covered sunny afternoon on the campus became a steady stream of cars and a then a growing surge of children and parents, all pouring through the front entrance and into a cavernous indoor soccer facility.

Nearly 1,500 Newtown residents showed up for “Soccer Night in Newtown,” an event that featured the likes of soccer greats Landon Donovan, Dwayne De Rosario, Alexi Lalas and Mia Hamm, all thrown together both hastily and somehow seamlessly in less than a month with one key goal in mind.

Offer the kids a few hours to forget Sandy Hook, and give them a night to remember.

“You could just sense that something special was going to happen today, and that the community had really opened up,” said Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti, a native of nearby Guilford and the driving force behind the event. “The only thing we regret is that we wish we had a bigger place. There were just so many people that wanted to be a part of this.”

In the end, that was perhaps the only drawback: Too many people wanted in. But given the event’s unassuming beginnings in the wake of the tragedy, the turnout in itself was an accomplishment. Kick-started on a whim via phone call from Canetti to Quinnipiac men’s soccer coach Eric Da Costa just days after the shooting at Sandy Hook, the event picked up steam not because of promotion from the Dynamo or Major League Soccer, but because players heard, and they wanted to come.

When Canetti reached his good friend Lalas (right) about the plan, for example, the former USMNT great promptly took to Twitter to announce his inclusion. That was enough of a boost to get the US soccer community buzzing, softly punctuated when an event staffer greeted Lalas and patted him on the shoulder Monday night with the words, “thanks for taking this viral. This is incredible.”

More than 40 current MLS players attended the event along with the likes of Lalas, Hamm, USMNT greats Cobi Jones and Tony Meola and USWNT legend Kristine Lilly, who grew up a few towns over from Newtown. And much like the local residents, event organizers had to turn eager players away because there simply wasn’t room to hold all those who wanted in.

“That’s part of the beauty of these things, when they’re real,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “And this was real. It wasn’t really done for the press. It was done for the families.”

The event lasted more than four hours after Canetti opened the doors early, recognizing quickly that the NYA’s lobby couldn’t hold many more in waiting. And for those who got in – all Newtown residents, including many children who attend Sandy Hook Elementary – there were plenty of options once they got in, from pick-up games with De Rosario and New York Red Bulls star Kenny Cooper to chatting with US women’s team captain Christie Rampone, to a Q&A session with players like Houston’s Ricardo Clark and Vancouver’s Omar Salgado.

READ: Follow the evening in tweets from Alexi Lalas, Don Garber, Grant Wahl and more

During those sessions the players faced questions they hardly ever see from reporters – what’s it like to play in front of a big crowd, how many trophies have you won – all delivered by fawning kids who inevitably really needed to know one simple thing: How old were you when you started playing soccer?

“I was five years old and I was a hyperactive kid,” said LA Galaxy captain Landon Donovan (right), one of the stars of a Q&A session with Hamm, Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara and University of Connecticut alum and Real Salt Lake defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe. “My mom knew I needed something for me to do, and for me, that was always soccer.”

Donovan answered a number of questions – some he answered politely about his time with Everton, others he steered aside about whether he’ll be back in MLS this season – but perhaps none was better than a question posed about what it was like to walk into Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium before the US team’s historic 1-0 win there last summer.

“Well, it certainly wasn’t as friendly as the reception we’ve gotten here tonight,” he said.

San Jose Earthquakes newcomer Marcus Tracy was scheduled to participate in the Q&A session, too, but the former national collegiate Player of the Year never quite had the time. A Newtown native who jumped at Canetti’s invite to attend the event, Tracy never truly caught his breath to answer a question while the kids lined up, all looking for an autograph from the local hero who had come back home in the community’s time of need.

“That’s what it was all about – seeing these young kids come out here and have fun, smile,” he said. “Taking their minds off what’s transpired over the last few weeks, and restore some sense of normalcy in the healing.”

Canetti insisted that “Soccer Night in Newtown” will indeed have legs beyond Monday, and that he intends to bring a similar event back to the community in the spring. By then the snow will have thawed and there won’t be a capacity on an event meant to heal everyone who needs the help.

“We said from Day 1 that we didn’t want to be one and done, just come into the community, do something and move on,” Canetti said. “And the event tonight became bigger than we ever thought …but we want to do something special one more time. At least.”