SOUTH BRONX — As Bronx officials make a pitch to host the city's new Major League Soccer team, one South Bronx soccer club is already proving the popularity of the sport — and its power to change lives.
South Bronx United, the brainchild of a Morrisania high school teacher with a passion for sports, is more than a sports club. The nonprofit has seven competitive teams and a recreational league, serving 600 players aged 4 to 19, and also runs after-school programs.
Boys, and increasingly girls, come for the soccer and stay for the tutoring, college prep and mentorship opportunities.
“They’re here because they want to play, but then we start engaging them and telling them, well, you’re not just going to play, there are other skills you’ll need in life,” said Andrew So, the club’s founder and director. “There’s nothing they connect to more than soccer.”
So said he initially wanted to provide an informal safe space for local youth to play, to keep them “out of trouble and away from gangs.” He held the first tryouts in February 2009, when he had to make room to play in St. Mary's Park in Mott Haven by shoveling snow that had fallen overnight. The players had no jerseys — a far cry from the sleek uniforms they proudly sport now.
Word spread fast, making recruiting unnecessary.
“Kids just found us,” said So, adding that roughly 100 aspiring players are on the club’s waitlist. “As demand grew, we realized, all these kids love soccer, we can really leverage that to guide them through school.”
Jeffrey Cordova, 16, saw the team playing at St. Mary’s and asked to join. While he called himself an “average” student, he said he jumped on the educational opportunities South Bronx United offered with the soccer training.
“I had never thought about that. Most clubs don’t focus on education. And you have to pay for them,” he said during a Regents review session — which is free, like his club membership. “I felt like I grew with the program.”
With players from 30 countries, half born abroad and most from immigrant families, the club reflects the South Bronx’s diversity and the passion for soccer shared by many immigrants, which inspired the “United” in the club’s name, So said.
“I like the blending of cultures. I think it’s beautiful,” said Jamaal Harmon, 29, a coach and after-school program coordinator. “It’s like the UN of soccer.”
South Bronx United expanded rapidly to include girls, weekend intramural games for younger children and summer programs. The teams travel for tournaments and the program’s most talented alumni have earned scholarships for college. “Programs that are much more academic lose kids that are less motivated,” So said.
“Because of the soccer, we are able to attract those that are struggling.”
South Bronx United, which is funded through foundations, donors and some City Council discretionary funding, was recently among three runners-up in a competition by the city’s Young Men’s Initiative and the Ashoka Foundation, promoting groups that “increase opportunities and reduce disparities among young black and Latino men.” The club has a staff of five and relies on about 100 volunteer coaches and tutors.
Next month, South Bronx United will host its third fundraising benefit, honoring retired U.S. men’s national team captain Claudio Reyna.
Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is hoping that this type of fervor for soccer may help the Bronx land the city's next Major League Soccer team — the New York City FC, coming in 2015. Diaz has said the team should come to the Bronx if it's unable to ink a deal for a new stadium in Queens.
Harmon, who played soccer for Texas A&M International, started volunteering with the group when he moved to the Bronx to care for his ailing father.
“I fell in love with the kids instantly,” he said. “They thought I was a professional player. I could get used to that."
When his father passed away, Harmon decided to stay, and is now on the organization's staff.
“I felt like I found another family.”