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Homeless Athletes Take to Times Square for National Soccer Championship

 Street Soccer USA, an outreach group for the homeless, held its annual soccer championships in Times Square on Monday, July 22, 2013.
Street Soccer USA Championships in Times Square
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TIMES SQUARE — Goalkeeper Ellish Danzy stared down his attacker, waiting for the overtime penalty shot that would determine whether Philadelphia or Arlington, tied 2-2, would advance in the national championship tournament.

But professional, college or even high school teams these were not. This was Street Soccer USA, an annual four-on-four soccer tournament in Times Square, comprising 22 teams made up of homeless players from across the country, all working to turn around their lives.

Danzy, whose Philadelphia team had been founded just five months earlier, was only in his third day as goalie. But as the shooter wound up and fired, Danzy launched to the left, arms stretching to block the shot, and the ball skittered wide.

More than 100 fans cheered from the sidelines. Danzy, hands raised, leapt into the arms of his teammates at midfield.

"It was pretty intense," he said later. "I'm happy right now, especially in Times Square."

The tournament, held Saturday, Sunday and Monday on a half-block-long soccer pitch set up on Broadway between West 46th and West 47th streets, was in its second year in Times Square, after moving last year from Washington, D.C.

Teams hailing from as far as California and Texas practice year-round and then send a select group of players to the championships. The winning teams then move on to the Homeless World Cup, where 64 teams will compete next month in Poznan, Poland.

"We're always developing participants' notion of what's possible, and many of those here didn't really believe they would be able to do this in Times Square," said Street Soccer USA founder Lawrence Cann.

"For our folks, people typically avert their eyes, don't pay attention to them, or give them negative attention," Cann, 34, added. "To be looked at for doing something positive really changes their outlook and improves their self-esteem — a very important development in terms of outcomes."

Teams are encouraged to not merely send their best players, but those who have shown the deepest commitment to weekly practices, exhibited the most improvement or provided the most support for their teammates.

"The players who get to come out are the ones who really stand out," event director Carrie Magnuson said. "It's the culmination of an entire year of work."

Cann, who lives in Union Square and played Division-I soccer at Davidson College in North Carolina, started Street Soccer USA in 2004. A part of Help USA, a homeless outreach nonprofit, the league now has teams in 19 cities across the United States, plus two others it's developing in Boston and Tulsa.

"It's helped me a lot," said East New York resident and New York team member Dennis Diaz, 23, who joined the league through the Doe Fund last year after a stint in jail. "At first, I didn't want to play street soccer, but they definitely helped me stay off the street. I now have an apartment. I work security for the Doe Fund."

Of his teammates, he said, "We're family."

At the tournament, New York lost 4-2. But Diaz, who scored both goals for his side, was hardly troubled by the loss.

"It's all right," he said. "It's a privilege being here. It's exciting. I've never played soccer a day in my life. I have a whole new love for it."