A nonprofit removes financial obstacles to ‘the beautiful game’ for low-income youth
Two years ago Steven Cavalier and Oliver Yeh struck up a conversation on the sidelines of a soccer match at Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Philadelphia Union.
As they watched the sport they love, the two men had to agree there was a systemic problem lurking in the shadows of the American game. Put simply, competitive soccer clubs had created a system that was pay-to-play, which excluded low-income youth who couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars in fees.
On that day in 2016, Cavalier and Yeh planted the seeds of an organization that would open up the sport—sometimes called “the beautiful game”—to everyone in the Wilmington area who wanted to play.
Today, they are close to making their dream a reality.
The Future Soccer Stars (FSS) Foundation is a local nonprofit led by Cavalier, a United States Soccer Federation licensed coach, that works to give Wilmington children free access to the sport. Cavalier wants soccer, and the life lessons associated with it, to change kids’ lives the way it changed his.
“I grew up playing soccer and I saw all the opportunities that it gave me,” says the Fairfax resident. “I wanted to offer the opportunity to everyone, not just the kids that could afford it, or had the means to get somewhere.”
The foundation has its roots in a pilot program run in 2015. Cavalier began hosting soccer lessons and activities at a Boys and Girls club in the city. Then he expanded to two host sites. Then three. This past spring, he had licensed soccer coaches running activities and lessons at six community centers around the city, involving kids ranging in age from 8 to 16. Many of them had never played soccer before they encountered the foundation.
The work FSS does culminates every year in “City on the Pitch Day,” hosted by the University of Delaware at its athletic facilities. In 2016 around 30 kids attended the day of soccer and fun. This past June it blossomed into a celebration involving more than 400 kids from Wilmington, and included activities arranged by the Delaware Art Museum in addition, of course, to playing soccer.
“The kids love it because it’s something completely different,” says Yeh, who lives in Trolley Square and is now the chair of the foundation’s board of directors. “We had kids get on the field and they couldn’t believe it was real grass.”
Help from BPG
The dream that Cavalier and Yeh had almost never got off the ground. It was an encounter with one man that made it all financially possible in 2015, when FSS was in the pilot stage.
“Just like anything, it costs money to buy the equipment, get there, start it up and all that,” says Cavalier. “Finally I met a guy by the name of Rob Buccini and he was kind enough, him and the Buccini/Pollin Group, to give me the capital to start it.”
Buccini is on the board of directors for the Foundation and has been a key asset in connecting the organization with the corporate community. His company, BPG, supplied volunteers to help make the City on the Pitch Day a success.
“They like to give back,” says Cavalier, referring to BPG. “They brought 20 to 25 volunteers down for the day to help out.”
Adds Yeh: “Rob has been pivotal in helping us make connections to the community.”
Meanwhile, Cavalier is dreaming bigger than just introducing kids to the sport in after-school lessons.
“We want to create a city league,” he says. “We want to make sure we give everyone the opportunity to play.”
12 Sites in the City
The league will have 12 host sites located around the city. Key to the project will be the new sports complex on the Wilmington Riverfront, set to be completed later this year, where FSS will have access to the two turf soccer fields.
More important than creating the league is FSS’s goal of softening the financial burden of low-income kids who want to play the sport at a high level.
Ordinarily, kids who want to play in a competitive soccer league must first join a local soccer club. These clubs typically charge rates that begin at about $1500 and range upwards, depending on what the fees include.
At least one soccer club in the region anticipates charging each player on their U14 team more than $3000 for the upcoming season. The fee will pay for an athletic trainer, the coaches’ travel, referees and registration fees for tournaments. The club’s budget notes that it does not include the cost of uniforms, which can run hundreds of dollars, and does not provide for travel to and from tournaments.
“What we are trying to do is create an access point for kids who don’t have the means to play soccer,” says Yeh. At the same time, he says, “We aren’t here to compete with the other clubs [in Delaware].”
FSS will work with, instead of against, the other soccer organizations in the region, he explains. FSS has plans to provide scholarships to talented kids who want to play for the Delaware Football Club but can’t afford to do so. FSS also has close ties with the Philadelphia Union Youth Academy program and hopes to bring talented players to the academy’s attention.
FSS awarded its first scholarship to 8-year-old Jacob Martinez, of the Hedgeville neighborhood, last summer. As a result, Jacob played for the Delaware Rush soccer club during the summer, fall, winter and spring seasons.
“The games,” says Jacob when asked what his favorite part of soccer is. He has played in 10 tournaments with Delaware Rush and can’t wait to keep competing, saying he loves the hard work of training.
Jacob’s father, Jose Martinez, says his son was born with a soccer ball in his hand.
“He has a passion for soccer,” Jose says. “It’s the only thing he talks about. He keeps telling me he wants to be a star.”
His father remarks that even in the house, his son never stops dribbling the ball around the living room.
Some kids might not believe that the dream of playing professional soccer can become a reality. That’s why Cavalier brought on his protege, Delaware native and current Philadelphia Union defender Mark McKenzie, as an ambassador.
McKenzie says that having a mentor to look up to and act as a guide was important to him when he was developing. “I look to be that for the young kids coming up,” he says.
McKenzie was born in The Bronx, N.Y., but his family moved to Bear when he was 8. He made his way through the ranks of the pay-to-play system, first with the Hockessin Soccer Club, then on the Union Academy teams. He played collegiate soccer at Wake Forest before being called up to the Union and Major League Soccer earlier this year.
Now he wants to give back by making sure all kids have access to the sport in his home state, regardless of their financial situation.
“Everybody can’t afford to pay a fee for a uniform or to travel,” McKenzie says. “Giving these kids the opportunity is what’s important to me—seeing this next generation come up and just enjoy the game ultimately.”
Both Cavalier and Yeh stress that their efforts are about more than helping kids learn to play soccer. They want FSS to be a catalyst for tying the local community together.
“What we are trying to do is bigger than soccer,” says Cavalier. “We are just using soccer as the tool to help the community, help the kids.”