Players PromiseJun 25, 2018

Players Promise: U.S. Soccer Foundation

“When you can combine the game you love with doing good in communities that need help, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

That is how President and CEO, Ed Foster-Simeon of the U.S. Soccer Foundation sums up their work, and it is the thinking that has driven their evolution as an organization.

The U.S. Soccer Foundation was created in the wake of the 1994 World Cup and was tasked with promoting the growth of soccer in the United States. During subsequent years they worked hard on that mission, building grants and programs in all 50 states and supporting the start of MLS and each iteration of the professional women’s game. Through that work, they began to notice a deeper need. “We had a broad mandate when we first started,” said Foster-Simeon, “but in 2008, we surveyed the landscape of soccer, and we recognized at that time that children in low income communities really weren’t participating at the level that we hoped.”

Participation in soccer was lagging in underserved communities, and the Foundation began to view that as an opportunity to apply their expertise and resources. “The cost of participation in sports programming is a barrier if you’re in a low income community.” explained Foster-Simeon, “80% of children in low-income communities don’t participate in organized sports of any kind. And so, we wanted to address that by bringing soccer programming to those communities and making it accessible.”

The Foundation began its efforts at increasing the game’s accessibility with Soccer for Success, an after-school program offered for free in low-income communities. The program served 45,000 children last year and aims for 70,000 this year.

This is not simply a soccer initiative. The coaches are also trained as mentors and are looking to improve the lives of children facing a range of difficulties. “They have a lot of challenges, a lot of downward pressures, so we train the coaches how to be influential in those children's’ lives.” said Foster-Simeon, “Encouraging them to lead active and healthy lifestyles, to stay in school, to stay out of trouble. And, the cool part is that we have independent evaluations that have shown there is significant improvements in health outcomes from children who participated in the program, as well as improved development outcomes.”

The Soccer for Success program quickly revealed another, deeper issue. It was one thing to create a program to bring soccer to kids who didn’t have access, but it was another to find a place for them to actually play the game. “We did this after-school programming, and what we discovered was that a lot of neighborhoods really didn’t have any space. In some cases we’d be programming in the cafeteria or in school hallways because that’s the only place that was available. They didn’t have safe places to play at all.” recalled Foster-Simeon, “There could be a wonderful soccer complex across town, but if you don’t have a mom with a minivan who can drive you there, it might as well be on the other side of the moon. The fact of the matter is we need to create play spaces within a half-mile of where children in underserved communities live so that they can have easy access to them and make it easy for them to participate.”

The recognition of this problem gave birth to Safe Places to Play. The core goal of this program is the development of mini-pitches in neighborhoods that lack safe playing areas. These mini-pitches are built on school grounds and parks and are roughly the size of a tennis court. The Foundation targets spaces that are rundown and otherwise problematic, spaces that have become havens for undesirable activities. They transform those spaces into something useful and attractive. “When you transform that kind of space it really kind of transforms the neighborhood in a big way as well.” said Foster-Simeon. 

I’m a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is required.”

The program has set ambitious goals for itself. The Foundation plans to build 1,000 mini-pitches by 2026 and is on pace with over 300 already funded. The effort has drawn support from corporate sponsors, teams and even individual players.

Clarence Goodson, retired MLS veteran and US Men’s National Team player, worked with the Foundation to build his own Signature Pitch at North Springfield Elementary, the school he attended as a child. “I’m a firm believer that to whom much is given, much is required.” Goodson said of the project, “I don’t want to be someone who stands on the sidelines and doesn’t give anything back. Soccer is the world’s game. It transcends all cultures & doesn’t discriminate. All are welcome. Giving children a safe place to play soccer while also grabbing their attention at a pivotal time is priceless. I am very proud to be a part of it and have my name on a pitch in my hometown.”

Goodson’s sentiments reflect the feelings of many players in MLS who have gotten involved themselves through the Player Association's Players Promise program. “The players believe in the power of soccer to transform the lives of kids and want the game to be more accessible to everyone, regardless of economic background,” MLSPA Executive Director Bob Foose said in discussing the MLSPA’s commitment to the program, “The Foundation's mini-pitch campaign perfectly reflects the goals of our Player’s Promise charitable program, which is to use soccer to help children in under-served communities”

The PA has worked with the Foundation to build four mini-pitches and has another three currently in the works. Through the Players Promise program, the players, as a unified group, intend to be a long-term part of the effort to create safe places for children to play the game of soccer. To the Foundation, this support is invaluable. “When the players recognize the need and can speak to the need and articulate the need, that resonates with people,” said Foster-Simeon, “It’s one thing for Ed at the U.S. Soccer Foundation to say it, but when the Players Association and when the players themselves are saying ‘this is important’ that resonates well beyond anything that we could do on our own.”

This is bigger than just what happens at the league or international level, this is what happens in lives."

The central idea of the program for the U.S. Soccer Foundation and the members of the MLSPA is that soccer can be a powerful, positive force in the lives of children. While increasing access may serve to improve the quality of the game in the United States, that effect is secondary to what the opportunity to play can do for kids. “So this is bigger than just what happens at the league or international level, this is what happens in lives,” said Foster-Simeon, “and how many of us have played soccer and other sports where we didn’t achieve our dream of becoming a world-famous professional athlete? But, we learned so many of those things that are helping us in our careers and that make us better people, healthier people, more conscious about diverse populations and about how to work with others.”

To learn more about the program visit You can also follow the US Soccer foundation on Twitter and Instagram.