By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 12, 2019) US Soccer Players - Michael Holstein noticed something about the soccer scene he played in while growing up in the DC suburbs: By and large, it simply didn't reflect the region's dazzling diversity of cultures, nationalities, and ethnicities.
"It's bigger here than most places, but it was always like this fringe sport and that always seemed weird to me. The rest of the world plays it, and we're supposedly a nation of immigrants," said the filmmaker in a conversation with USSoccerPlayers this week. "You would think it's more ingrained in our culture and our cities, and that would have a knock-on effect of capturing a huge talent pool. And whether we do or don't, it obviously never translated."
So when Holstein and his production company, The Content Farm, had a chance to work on the project that became "Soccer in the City," a documentary film which hit Amazon Prime's streaming service this month, he dived in with both feet.
"I thought this was going to be more of a hot-take piece," he said. "It quickly evolved into more of a celebration of the people who are doing good, who are enabling kids to play and some of the impact we're seeing with that… we've highlighted people, organizations, professional teams, players, people who are enabling accessibility to soccer to grow."
It's an ambitious 79-minute trip across the globe from New York City to DC to Philadelphia to the Paris banlieues to rural California and beyond. "Soccer in the City" features a long list of American players, personalities, and organizations seeking to upend, or at least provide an alternative to, that familiar, frustrating "white, suburban" soccer narrative.
Voices like Claudio Reyna, Briana Scurry, Lincoln Phillips, and Bill Hamid shed light on the traditional under-representation of black, Latino, blue-collar, and urban communities in the American game, and those who are working to change it.
"When you talk to people in the industry who've been doing it a long time, the blown opportunities are disheartening," said Holstein.
So with narration from veteran soccer journalist Gab Marcotti, the film tracks stories like Justin Haak, the Brooklyn teenager who is New York City FC's first Homegrown player from the Five Boroughs. There's Mark McKenzie and Austin Trusty, the center-back pair and USMNT hopefuls spotted by the Philadelphia Union's youth system, at least before Trusty was traded to the Colorado Rapids earlier this offseason. Holstein chuckled as he recounted his team's scene with Haak on his stoop in Bed-Stuy, and their visit to the nearby park where he honed his skills.
"He's a quiet, really nice unassuming kid," said Holstein, "and probably because we were trailing with a couple TV cameras, it attracted a bunch of attention from the younger kids in the neighborhood and we got to see him sign his first autograph he's ever been asked for. So that was cool."
The story rolls on with glimpses of initiatives like DC SCORES, the DC United-affiliated non-profit that uses both soccer and poetry to positively guide District of Columbia kids from humble backgrounds. Atlanta's groundbreaking Station Soccer project to build small-sided fields at MARTA rail stations. NYCFC's New York City Soccer Initiative, which builds mini-pitches across the region. The Chevron Soccer Academy, an effort led by the Open Goal Project to mobilize past and present professional players to train and inspire kids in central California's agricultural communities.
"[It's] a chance to tell a story that was interesting and that I thought would have some impact," said Holstein, a former screenwriter on "The Wire," the iconic HBO series. "It's not going to change the world. Our little movie isn't suddenly going to make the men's national team [more] relevant. But if we can open some eyes and maybe spotlight some people who are doing some good work in the accessibility space, that just seems like a project worth pursuing."
Grassroots clubs like South Bronx United and DC's Cosmic Wolves get some shine as well. A trip to the sprawling Paris suburbs whose blue-collar immigrant and minority neighborhoods produced the world-class talent that's fueled the rise of the current World Cup champions offers a snippet of what's possible.
Holstein didn't discover any quick answers for the United States' current situation. Access to quality coaching and facilities is a well-known problem. He does see reasons for urgency given what he believes will be very real on-field benefits for the USMNT.
"I think everybody has acknowledged that pay-to-play is going to exist in some way. You're not going to completely eliminate it. Maybe it's not even in the best interests of the game to completely eliminate it. But you do have to present alternatives," he said.
Casual and general audiences may strain to cope with the film's breadth, depth, and multilayered backstory. For soccer lovers, it's a compelling journey. Holstein credits the assistance of the MLS Players Association on the project, as well as the DC government, which helped underwrite "Soccer in the City" in the name of showcasing the city's soccer scene. He hopes to circle back in a few years to check in on the progress of the film's various protagonists with a sequel of sorts.
"I think inevitably our team will come from metro areas," he said. "If we're ever going to have success on the biggest stage, it's going to be as a result of those efforts."
More from Charles Boehm:
- Is American big money finally warming up to soccer?
- What I’m grateful for in soccer this Thanksgiving
- Lessons from November as USMNT re-learn the CONCACAF ropes
- Zlatan, Rooney, and MLS’s pesky relevance quandary
Graphic courtesy of Soccer in the City