- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

With blue and yellow tees draping their small frames and soccer cleats abounding, they look like members of your average suburban youth soccer team running the field in hopes of scoring a goal.

But these boys and girls — perspiring in the sun at the Barry Farms Recreation Center in Southeast alongside major league soccer greats, such as D.C. United forward and 2004 MLS Cup MVP Alecko Eskandarian — are anything but your average soccer players.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these kids goes pro,” Mr. Eskandarian, 23, said of the students he helps coach through the United Soccer Club in the District. “This is probably laying the groundwork right now.”

United for D.C., the charitable arm of D.C. United, the District’s major league soccer team, has teamed with the Barry Farms community to offer soccer practice and games twice weekly to students in Ward 8.

About 70 students from kindergarten through third grade at Birney and Savoy elementary schools in Southeast and Howard Road Academy in Southeast signed up during this pilot season to use donated equipment and to meet soccer legends such as D.C. United midfielder Freddy Adu.

The 10-week program brings soccer to the predominantly black inner city, where basketball and football are common staples of childhood but where many youths have never seen a soccer game on television.

“U.S. soccer’s biggest priority right now is to get the inner cities involved,” said United Soccer Club head coach Judah Cooks, a former D.C. United player and D.C. native. “In a lot of countries, soccer is the only sport. The kids are playing with paper bags, anything they can get their hands on. It’s only in the U.S. that our inner cities are basketball and football players. … The U.S. has some of the world’s best athletes, so it only makes sense that we get them involved in playing the sport.”

Birney Elementary student Donald Joshua, 9, showed off his soccer prowess at practice last week, perilously balancing the ball on his neck between his shoulder blades, then showing off his footwork as he kicked the ball around the field.

“They teach you how to do new stuff like keep the ball up in the air with your knees and feet,” the third-grader said. “I want to be a soccer player when I grow up and play for D.C. United.”

Kayla Williams, 6, said she likes soccer because “it’s good exercise.” “Soccer is one of my favorite sports because you get to have lots and lots of fun. And [Coach] Judah makes me laugh,” said the Birney Elementary kindergartner.

Created at the request of Ward 8 residents who wanted a physical outlet that would expose children to a new area while keeping them out of trouble after school, the United Soccer Club provides a collision of cultures for the students who are growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood.

“It’s important for them to see that example at this young age so they can become familiar with different types of people,” Mr. Cooks said, pointing to his assistant coaches who include European, Asian and Hispanic D.C. United players and students from area universities.

Mr. Eskandarian said the club also introduces an untapped reservoir of hope for students who often see music or more popular sports, such as basketball, as the only way to attain fame and fortune.

“We’re trying to show them [soccer] can be a key to getting a scholarship for college,” the former University of Virginia student said.

The organization also offers United Reads, a reading program that brings D.C. United players to the classroom to promote literacy, and Kicks for Kids, whose free tickets offer underprivileged youths a game-day experience, complete with food and players’ autographs.

The last soccer club practice is tomorrow.

United midfielder Domenic Mediate, who has helped coach the soccer club since the first day, said he is confident the students will go far.

“For some of them, it seems to be clicking so that they might be able to play for a big league in a couple of years,” said Mr. Mediate, 24, a University of Maryland alumnus.

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