WASHINGTON – This week, the U.S. Soccer Foundation's annual “Urban Soccer Symposium” has gathered the diverse groups bringing the beautiful game to the nation's inner cities for four days of workshops, networking and political lobbying in the nation's capital to help address what keynote speaker Claudio Reyna called "the last big hurdle" facing soccer in the United States.
In addition to wide-ranging sessions with titles like “Fundraising Plans: Digital Options for Raising Funds” and “Fun Games to Develop Players in Small Spaces,” this year's edition at Georgetown University features US national team legends Reyna and Cobi Jones as guest speakers.
Reyna's keynote remarks on Tuesday evening drew the rapt attention of the attendees and were followed by a lively question-and-answer session centered around his highly visible role as U.S. Soccer's youth technical director.
“It's a bit of a mixed crowd in terms of what people are here for, but I think it was received great,” Reyna told MLSsoccer.com after chatting, signing autographs and posing for photos with a long line of admirers after his speech, where he presented “a short, edited version” of the official US youth coaching curriculum he wrote in 2011.
“It's enthusiastic soccer supporters, organizers, coaches,” he continued. “You have to be passionate to be involved in this, because it's not the winning trophies, it's not the front pages or the glory, it's really trying to, the best way that they can, figure out ways to enhance where they live and to make their programs better.
“This is right in my wheelhouse, because I really care about grassroots all the way up to the pros.”
The New Jersey native holds the mission of inner-city outreach close to his own heart, having created the Claudio Reyna Foundation, a non-profit which seeks “to inspire underserved youth in urban communities with positive experiences through soccer, education and community involvement in hopes of growing healthy bodies, minds and spirits,” at the close of his illustrious playing career.
“To be honest, where I researched and saw around where I lived, soccer didn't really even exist – kids didn't know about it,” he said. “Ed [Foster-Simeon, U.S. Soccer Foundation president] and I have had the conversations about planting that seed and staying there – not doing a clinic, providing free balls and T-shirts and rolling out of town two hours later, but having these neighborhoods realize that someone's there to stay. That's what has been fun and that's been the challenge, creating programs that stay, that are rooted in these communities.
“I think it's the last big hurdle that we need to do. It's not going to happen overnight. But I always think about 30, 40 years ago, I'm sure the suburbs had the same sort of thought: How are we going to put soccer in towns where baseball and football is so big? So I feel if it can happen there, it can almost happen easier in the inner cities.”
One of Reyna's and Jones' old teammates is also on hand at the symposium – but in the audience, not at the podium.
Former USMNT, Ajax and Chivas USA star John O'Brien is quietly making his first trip to the event as a representative of Soccer Without Borders, which in O'Brien's words “serves 'newcomer youths,' refugees and immigrant populations – soccer in a holistic model for education and things like that, both in the states and abroad.”
“I've been a part of Soccer Without Borders for about five years now, helping out as a board member and then I also started programming in Los Angeles,” he explained to MLSsoccer.com. “It's an organization that I love and I want to help out however I can. Coming to places like this is really inspiring, to be around people who are doing similar things and trying to make a difference.
“I feel like I'm here in a different role,” O'Brien said, downplaying the significance of his own professional exploits. “They have the keynote speakers and I'm here kind of from the grassroots, just exploring what's going on. It's nice – I'm learning a lot.”