Soccer program gives homeless chance to succeed 

click to enlarge Street Soccer USA was in The City on Friday, using sports for social change at the Civic Center plaza. Sixteen teams were featured in the homeless division’s national cup. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • Street Soccer USA was in The City on Friday, using sports for social change at the Civic Center plaza. Sixteen teams were featured in the homeless division’s national cup.

Eight years ago in Charlotte, N.C., the Cann brothers had an epiphany.

Lawrence Cann was working in a soup kitchen and couldn't help but marvel at the sheer energy displayed by the kids with whom he worked. If they could only learn to channel it in a positive manner, he thought, the possibilities could be infinite.

He enlisted the help of his younger brother, Robb, and set off to work. Both brothers had played soccer at the collegiate level -- Lawrence for Davidson, Robb for East Carolina. Why not use the sport they knew and loved as the conduit for change?

In 2006, Street Soccer USA came into being. In '08, it became a nonprofit and held its first national cup. Rather than incorporate full-field affairs (soccer games normally feature 11 players per side on large, grassy fields), the Canns focused upon small-sided games -- 4-on-4 (three players and a goalkeeper).

"The reality is we have a group of homeless men and women, mostly 18-30 years old, who are really trying to do the right thing," said Robb Cann, who started up a league called I Play For SF that has generated $700,000 in its first two years. "They can use this team as a springboard, a platform."

Street Soccer recruits thusly: Organizers head into a shelter and invite interested applicants. Once they attend five practices, they can officially join the team. They then plan for the future in three-, six- and 12-month increments, aided by a Social Change Curriculum. Within a year of joining the program, 75 percent of participants connect with further education or employment.

This past weekend marked the first national cup held in San Francisco, after years in New York City. According to Robb Cann, now the national director (Lawrence is the president), it is the culmination of a year's hard work.

Sixteen cities were represented in the homeless division (the women's division was titled Lady Salamander, the men's, Social Change), which began on Friday, the bracket whittling down to Sunday's finals.

Three courts were set up in Civic Center Plaza, composed of rubberized squares, sealed together. Hockey-style boards served as boundaries and, at times, pass-enhancers.

A festive atmosphere reigned, helped in no small part by the unseasonably sunny summer weather. Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski, Street Soccer's national ambassador, stopped by for Sunday's games and even lent commentary alongside public-address announcer Mike Gaddes.

To further the concept of fair play, a green card was once again on display during the tournament. A deviation from the standard yellow and red cards seen during soccer games, the green card is awarded by the referee during these small-sided affairs to reward particularly chivalrous displays.

That factors directly into the Social Change Curriculum, which melds soccer skills with those needed for advancement in life. Fittingly, the two disciplines often intersect. Fair play and accountability are paramount.

And, oh, the thrill of victory.

Upon winning the Lady Salamander final in emphatic fashion over the team from Sacramento, members from Los Angeles' squad burst into tears. They'd played for an aptly named Opportunity team all weekend, and now they were on their way to the Homeless World Cup in Santiago, Chile.

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Matthew Snyder

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