WASHINGTON – Nearly every entity in the United States large enough to be affected by the doings of government eventually visits Capitol Hill to lobby its case in the halls of power.
On Wednesday evening, some of U.S. Soccer’s biggest names took that game to Gallaudet University’s Hotchkiss Field in Northeast D.C. for the Capital Soccer Classic, a few small-sided scrimmages with Washington insiders for a good cause – and a reminder of the sport’s constantly-growing presence in American life.
“The game of soccer in this country, you can’t stop it,” US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann told a decent crowd composed of fans, Congressional staffers and participants in the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Urban Soccer Symposium, which is also taking place in D.C. this week. "It’s growing at all levels, and I guess the most important level is really the grassroots level, where you reach out to kids."
The German-American was the event’s brightest star despite the participation of US legends like John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Cobi Jones, Eddie Pope, John O’Brien, Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak and Juergen Sommer, not to mention several members of the Congressional Soccer Caucus.
“I have been here 15 years, and seeing the transition of this game over the last 15 years is just awesome,” added Klinsmann. “What is exciting to see here is also that female players are always in the same balance as the male players, which you don’t see in Europe or South America.”
The nation’s infamous red-blue political alignment was replaced by “Gray” (T-shirts) vs. “Gold” (scrimmage vests) as Democratic and Republican teams, both aided by the aforementioned ringers, played a good-natured match punctuated by penalty-kick shootouts that allowed even the most skills-challenged to get a shot in.
“We recognize that this is a great event and an opportunity to have fun, but we also recognize the other really important contributions that soccer can make in the lives of our young people,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D, Md.), co-chair of the Congressional Soccer Caucus, calling soccer “a great and growing sport” and proudly noting that his son Nick plays for Georgetown University.
Soccer in the United States had grown into a social and economic force to be reckoned with long before Philadelphia Union forward Conor Casey’s mother Susan helped turn the term “soccer mom” into a political watchword through her successful run for Denver City Council in 1995.
But the willingness of 10 Congressmen to expose themselves to potential public embarrassment by taking on an all-star collection of retired pros underlined the game’s steady absorption into the mainstream – and its contribution to the greater good.
“Youth coaches are one of the most under-utilized national resources we have in this country,” said U.S. Soccer Foundation’s president Ed Foster-Simeon. “Children come running to coaches, because they want to be there and they want to play. We need to seek to leverage that opportunity to not only teach the children the game of soccer, but to help them in developing important life skills.”
Making that wider case – and after all, the foundation is only one of many soccer-based organizations which benefit from local, state and federal funding – came naturally to the effervescent Klinsmann.
“It’s a sport that really challenges you, physically and mentally – the workout is tremendous,” he said. “The beauty of soccer is it’s an inner-driven sport, so basically you have to make some decisions and make some choices on the field. It’s not a sport driven by a playbook, it’s not driven by a timeout, or by set pieces, as we call them. It’s a sport that is driven by the players once they’re on the field.
“They’re in charge of it. I always tell the players, ‘Hey, at the end of the day, it’s your game.’”