SAN JOSE, Calif. – When the San Jose Earthquakes were looking at potential sites for the next installation in MLS’ 20 For 20 Mini-Pitch Initiative, one thing immediately jumped out during the club’s visit to the Ocala STEAM Academy, a middle school on the city’s east side.
“There were basketball courts and volleyball courts everywhere, but kids were kicking soccer balls,” recalled Jed Mettee, the Quakes’ Vice President of Marketing and Communications.
Thanks to the Quakes and the 20 For 20 sponsors – MLS WORKS, adidas, Southern New Hampshire University and the US Soccer Foundation – that will no longer be the case. The kids from Ocala can enjoy a brand-new mini-pitch, which was unveiled Wednesday by sponsor representatives and five MLS All-Stars, including local Earthquakes heroes David Bingham and Chris Wondolowski.
“It’s special to be a part of this day,” Wondolowski said. “The stuff on the field will always fade, but this stuff will last. What’s special for me is that years from now, I get to come back and see this pitch and see what it’s done.”
Instead of years, it was a matter of mere minutes after the last speech wrapped up before children were filling the mini-pitch for the inaugural match.
Ocala, located in San Jose’s poorer eastern side, was the site of the Quakes’ first community clinic in 2010, and team officials remembered the site when the time came to scout possibilities for this facility.
“We always thought it was a great location,” Mettee said, “because there were a ton of soccer-playing children around this area.”
Despite temperatures pushing triple digits, there were scores on hand to enjoy an array of activities, including carnival games, giant inflatable slides and a photo booth with an attached dress-up area.
Ocala principal Tracy Leathers allowed that demand may initially outstrip availability in terms of who gets to play on the mini-pitch.
“We figure that at the beginning, we’ll have to have sign-ups for lunch and brunch,” said Leathers, who thinks the crowding will thin out when after-school programming from America Scores and the USSF’s Soccer For Success initiative kicks in.
But even more than the pitch itself, Leathers said, was the impact left by the simple act of outsiders paying attention to her students.
“What I really think is the most powerful message is the message that you sent to our kids: That you are important, you matter, and we see you,” Leathers said. “For that, I am eternally grateful. … Often, our community gets overlooked, and the stereotypes get fed into. But we have amazing, beautiful, wonderful children.”