By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 17, 2016) US Soccer Players – Most organized youth soccer activities around the nation’s capital take place out in the suburbs. It’s near and outside of the Beltway where field space is more plentiful and the traditional demographics of the sport here (generally affluent, predominantly white) can be found. In that regard, DC is no different than most of the United States.
Those wishing to attend a typical Joga SC training session take a different route, to a different part of town entirely.
A trip from downtown DC to the KIPP DC AIM Academy in the city’s Southeast quadrant takes you east across the Anacostia River. That muddy, polluted waterway separates Washington’s “haves” from its densest clusters of “have-nots”. You pass through public housing-heavy neighborhoods like Barry Farm, where poverty, crime and violence are everyday realities.
The charter school’s hilltop location offers a fine view of the US Capitol, which seems a lot further away than four miles. Behind the building, a multi-use synthetic-turf field regularly plays host to Joga’s freewheeling skills sessions, where players as young as 5 years old hone their abilities on the ball, usually with hip-hop music bumping from a boombox brought out to the pitch by Kephern Fuller, the club’s outspoken founder.
Fuller also runs practices oriented towards tactical and team concepts. But the focus here is on creativity and daring – on learning moves that don’t just beat defenders, but embarrass them, turn them into the hapless victims of the next viral YouTube skills clip.
Call it “blacktop” or “mixtape” culture, it’s what makes Joga different. This is soccer “with the heart of the streets,” inspired by the mercurial brilliance of Messi and Neymar and Pogba.
“When I read about Brazil, when I read about Vasco da Gama, I read how the flavor and style that they play with is born from the streets, born out of dancing, born out of their culture,” Fuller explains. “This is how we need to approach soccer in the inner cities – not from the standpoint of ‘we’re here to teach you soccer. You need to put everything together. You need to show them first the flavor, the passion, that they can create the game themselves, through their own culture.”
A Georgia native, Fuller played NCAA soccer at George Mason University before trying his hand at a pro career in the Netherlands. His career was short, but it opened his eyes both to the intensity of a 24/7/365 soccer culture – “We’re years behind,” he notes ruefully – and the wider world of opportunities for American players abroad.
On his return to the states, he began working with a few young players in Fairfax, the Northern Virginia community that is home to GMU. He quickly honed in on a developmental model that he thought could connect with a sector of society that has produced many of the world’s greatest players, yet has been systematically overlooked and under-explored by American soccer. Poor and at-risk urban populations, especially African-Americans.
What started with five kids on a basketball court soon became an insurgent youth club working to create a new way of teaching the game – and growing players. He also partnered with KIPP, one of DC’s largest and fastest-growing charter school networks, to instruct some of AIM’s students on a weekly basis.
“The culture is different from the standpoint of how they look at sports. If you tell them that they have opportunity, they’re way more open to it. They don’t really question it as much or doubt it as much,” said Fuller of the city kids he works with. “These kids are very resilient. They’re used to not having a lot, so they don’t expect a lot. They don’t expect everything to be given to them, they understand that they have to go take it.
“In the suburbs, they have opportunity, so they’ve got to gauge ‘is college better, is doing this better?’ Which is fine, that’s the world they come from. But the inner city is different. Sports is a thing that they support. Now, soccer, they don’t know about. So for me, I have to go in with a big selling point: ‘Hey, soccer is the biggest sport in the world, they’re already scouting. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t scouting here, the Washington Redskins aren’t scouting here.’”
Early in his life, Fuller experienced the social stigma many African-Americans attach to soccer, often viewing it as an upper-class or foreign sport.
“I grew up in rural North Carolina, and when I first played – first of all, I didn’t have their accent because my family was a military family – my cousins would call me a white boy straight to my face just for soccer,” he said. “That is kind of the culture, the mindset: We don’t play soccer, that’s not something we do.”
Fuller believes that he has a sales pitch, combined with the sport’s growing visibility and appeal, that can change that mentality, and possibly revolutionize American soccer in the process. He introduces the fun side of the game to younger players while also providing a framework for learning advanced concepts as they grow. At Joga, the focus is single-minded: Learning the craft in order to attain a professional career.
“For these kids, it opens their eyes to actually how big the game is and what it means when you aim for the top,” Fuller said. “If you just say hey, we’re only going to play, then they have no other goal. So our thinking is, let’s try to create as many opportunities or doors or pathways so that they can see the game. Whether they ‘make it’ or not is not the be-all, end-all. But at least they know what it is that they’re trying to reach for something and what it takes.
“I try to go at it from the [angle] that soccer is the best: Not like, ‘oh please, play soccer.’ I’m like, ‘No, those other sports are trash compared to soccer.’ That kind of gets their ear and they want to know why. Ultimately, in the inner-city mindset, everything’s a challenge. People challenge you. It’s like a rap battle or something – people will challenge and you have to show that you’re the best. They have to know and feel that you’re legit, or they feel you’re a waste of time.”
For Fuller, that means getting to the crucible of the European system as quickly as possible. Over several years he has built relationships and contacts in the Netherlands, and he’s recently taken the dramatic step of founding a Dutch Joga branch, an amateur club to provide his American players with exposure to scouts. As his reputation has grown, Joga sessions have drawn serious-minded players from as far away as Pennsylvania.
“There’s a lot of players in the US that have this talent level, but just don’t have the opportunity, and don’t have the mentality, don’t know what you need to make it,” he said. “And I didn’t have the mentality either, if I’m being honest. I wish I knew more. I just try to give the players and families a different outlook…. Some have the talent, but the thing they don’t understand is the mentality, the grind, everything that you have to do to really make it. It’s not just ‘I’m a good player.’ Every player is good, and now there’s going to be certain things that you’ve got to take a chance. Nothing’s guaranteed.
“Some kids families’ are going to move. I won’t say their names, but some kids are going to move, because I told [the parents], if you want them to realize their true level and you want them to be in an environment where they have to be pushed, just go over there. If you go over there, you’ll automatically get a [college] scholarship offer from here, they’re not going to turn away someone who’s been in an academy overseas, if you can get into one.”
Fuller has no interest in growing Joga into a youth “super club” with hundreds of players and large revenue streams, even though it would offer a level of financial stability that has thus far been elusive.
He wants to select ambitious kids with talent as well as focus, and help them reach as high as they can in the game. Could that be the key to finding the world-class player that has proved so elusive for this country?
“The goal is to get, in the future, the top 100, 120 players in the area that want to be pro, and put them in an environment where they have to challenge themselves every session. That’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “It’s not about the number, as we can tell with US Soccer. We’ve got millions of players but not creating anything close to the level that I feel that we should be. … I don’t need a thousand kids. Just like that basketball court with five or six kids, I have one school, two schools, finding kids that are dedicated and focused, and focus on them. Build them.”
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