Soccer is creating pathways for Bronx youth to reach their goals on and off the pitch

Consulate Cup
On Oct. 1, Crotona Park hosted its first of what soccer advocates hope, is many International soccer tournaments.
Photo courtesy NYCFC

For nine months of the year, East 161st Street is a thoroughfare for avid baseball fans circling Yankee Stadium. But a few blocks over, South Bronx soccer fields are lively with competition and hunger from young Bronxites — underrepresented in higher education and college soccer — who use the game as a platform to reach college.

Those from privileged backgrounds, and especially white middle-class males, are more likely to benefit from social mobility opportunities and pathways in sports than people from underserved communities, according to sports psychologists in a September 2022 study. And low-income youth in the 6-18 age range quit sports because of the financial costs at six times the rate of kids from high-income homes, according to a national survey of parents by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative and Utah State University’s Families in Sport Lab.

The South Bronx, comprised of 98% Black and Latino families according to census data, is one of the most poverty-stricken and underinvested districts in the U.S., where more than 40% of the region’s children live in poverty.

Since 2010, South Bronx United (SBU) — founded by former Bronx teacher Andrew So — has used the international and affordable game of soccer as a means of social mobility in the Bronx, where participants have a 100% high school graduation rate in an area where the graduation rate hovers around 50%.

“Here in the South Bronx, we’re very aware of the socioeconomics and demographics and how it’s still very hard for kids in the area to get opportunities … recreationally to play sports,” said So. “But it’s more than that. We also wanted South Bronx United to be a place where we could offer college prep services, immigration services and help provide pathways in the sport and beyond.”

Eddie Vera, a South Bronx United player, now plays at Iona University. Photo courtesy South Bronx United

Youth sports are becoming increasingly unaffordable for families, where the average parent spends $693 per year per child on youth sports. For children who participate in elite programs — lacrosse, gymnastics, ice hockey, gymnastics, tennis and skiing/snowboarding — parents frequently spend $12,000 per year or more, with the bulk of the money going toward travel, according to a 2019 survey by Project Play. 

There has been a concentrated effort to boost the global game of soccer in New York City — one of 16 host cities for the 2026 World Cup — with the hope of building a soccer infrastructure that includes free programing and pathways to play the sport.

Soccer is uniquely poised to make headway in the Bronx’s youth sports scene, proponents of the game tell the Bronx Times, in large part due to its relative inexpensiveness compared to other sports. Perhaps the globe’s most popular game, soccer has recently seen a surge in popularity in the U.S., where a survey by Ampere Analysis from the fourth quarter of 2021 found that 49% of U.S. sports fans like soccer, compared to 37% who like hockey.

When SBU unveiled its new soccer pitch and clubhouse under the shadows of Yankee Stadium on Thursday,  the SBU founder So said it’s a sign of the growth of not just SBU, but soccer at-large.

He said he hopes that he can spread South Bronx United to other underserved areas such as Hunts Point and Soundview.

Inside Yankee Stadium, it’s not just the pinstripes that take the field. New York City Football Club (NYCFC), the reigning 2021 MLS Cup Champions, has brought its own glory to the Bronx, and has been using its influence to popularize the game in corners of the borough.

The soccer field at Yankee Stadium for NYCFC home games is 110 yards long and 70 yards wide. It’s the smallest field in MLS, and the smallest allowed by international rules. Photo Elsa/Getty Images

On a rainy Saturday, Oct. 1, Crotona Park was a stage for the international soccer competition — the inaugural NYC Consulate Cup — where Burkina Faso defeated Mexico in the finals. For many nearby Crotona Park fútbol aficionados, it was the first time they had seen international football, and having it in their backyard was not lost on them.

“Soccer unifies and brings people together, regardless of their age, race, gender, culture, or nationality. The Consulate Cup exemplifies the power of sports diplomacy in connecting those from diverse backgrounds and building lasting bridges between communities.” said Edward Mermelstein, NYC commissioner of International Affairs. “As a city of immigrants, we are proud of our strong relationships with Consulates and the invaluable collaborations to ensure New Yorkers receive the support and services they need.”

Earlier this year, the New York City Soccer Initiative (NYCSI) partners – the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, NYCFC, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Adidas and Etihad Airways – hosted the first-ever NYCSI Community Cup, a free tournament that took place over two weekends, starting with coaching and skills-building clinics before moving to a knockout contest the following weekend. 

“Soccer is an interesting phenomenon. It’s very easy to play, you don’t need lot of equipment, just a round ball and you can play anywhere from a muddy field to a driveway,” said Jeffries, executive director of City in the Community, NYCFC’s nonprofit foundation. “From the club’s perspective (in 2010) we identified a need to use soccer as a way to address real issues concerning underserved communities, including a lack of programming and safe spaces to play.”

The pitches that hosted Community Cup action were a part of a $3 million initiative to create and maintain 50 mini-pitches throughout the city and expand free soccer programming to New York City youth.

This year it was the Bronx that reigned supreme, as Mott Haven defeated Astoria in the final and took home the inaugural Community Cup.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

More from Around NYC