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League of Stations: How a nonprofit uses trains and soccer to reach kids in Atlanta’s urban sprawl

Soccer in the Streets is building pitches at train stations to make the sport accessible to urban youth.

An aerial view of StationSoccer Five Points. (Courtesy of Soccer in the Streets)

ATLANTA — Sanjay Patel made an impression on Atlanta United FC president Darren Eales when they met circa 2014, before Atlanta’s Major League Soccer franchise had a name.

“He makes me chuckle,” Eales said. “I laugh with him, but he’s a guy that has 100 ideas a day; 95 are totally nuts, but every now and then he’ll come up with one that makes you go, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea.’”

A lunch appointment between Eales and Patel, a board member and director of strategic projects with Atlanta-based Soccer in the Streets — a not-for-profit organization that works to empower the city’s youth through soccer — turned into a trip to the Five Points MARTA station as Patel explained an idea that came to him one day taking a train to work.

“How about a pitch here?” Patel asked.

He and Eales had ventured up to the roof of the Five Points MARTA station where all that existed was a vacant amphitheater, closed to the public behind locks and a fence. Eales was confused.

“I was like, ‘This is a station, are you mad?’” Eales said.

He took some time to consider. Eales, like Patel, had used the Underground to travel to league matches growing up in the United Kingdom. The area of Atlanta where Patel lived, near Northlake Mall, was teeming with immigrants, a contrast to the whitewashed travel leagues Patel’s niece and nephew played in. Few, if any, of Patel’s neighbors played soccer. He explained to Eales — who had accepted his position in Atlanta only months earlier — the barriers that separated low-income Atlantan’s from soccer: money and geography.

“It’s very much how soccer runs in the rest of the world.”

Soccer in the Streets’ ideas spoke to Eales, and so did the view from Five Points’ amphitheater. It included a close-up of the jagged Atlanta skyline and the skeleton of the still-nameless soccer club’s colossal future home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Suddenly, building a turf pitch in a train station in the middle of downtown Atlanta didn’t seem so crazy.

“There is an element where we’re looking at how this works from a community give-back (standpoint), but also as a brand and the association with Atlanta United and what it’s about — being in the heart of the community, downtown, where our fans are,” Eales said.

Soccer in the Streets has existed in Atlanta since 1989, but it’s only recently gained worldwide notoriety for its StationSoccer initiative. The project has continuously evolved since Patel and Eales met in 2014, nearly three years before Atlanta United played its first match. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation previously worked with Soccer in the Streets before Atlanta United existed and Eales was brought aboard.

An aerial view of StationSoccer Five Points. (Courtesy of Soccer in the Streets)

The first StationSoccer pitch was designed and built on the roof of the Five Points station where Patel switched trains every day during his commute. The station gets its name for the five-way conversion of major streets in downtown Atlanta. It’s a center for commerce, entertainment and dining in Atlanta. Tourist may be familiar with its colloquial name “Five Points,” but it’s also MARTA’s hub. The center of nightlife and posh retail in downtown Atlanta is now the center of StationSoccer’s growing network.

On April 12, Soccer in the Streets broke ground on a new turf soccer pitch at East Point MARTA station. East Point will be the third addition to what is envisioned as a network of turf fields that could host league matches between neighborhood clubs inside Atlanta’s perimeter.

Soccer in the Streets tries to reach youth by bringing them access to soccer programming. The sport plays its traditional role in developing youth into leaders: team activities instill sportsmanship, camaraderie and humbleness in both defeat and victory. Soccer, though, is a small part of Soccer in the Streets’ actual function. The organization tries to prepare children to enter the workforce.

Soccer in the Streets and MARTA have partnered not only to build pitches, but also community classrooms around transit hubs. Youth learn financial literacy — how to save money and open a bank account — and skills that could train them to work right away. For example, the program certifies referees to find work officiating in local leagues.

Still, Soccer in the Streets faces hurdles. Even while Patel’s day job was in construction, his mind wandered to ways to clear the obstacles in front of Soccer in the Street.

“I knew our biggest hurdle outside of affordability was transportation, at the time, because I knew a lot of the kids’ parents didn’t have cars,” Patel said.

His background in construction and his wit for bright ideas converged when he noticed large tracts of undeveloped land around MARTA stations. Why choose between bringing the game to kids or bringing kids to the game? Why can’t Soccer in the Streets make soccer the most accessible sport in Atlanta, like it is everywhere else in the world?

“In the process of using the train system and seeing there was an abundance of unused space around transit and knowing it ran through the communities we serve, to me it became very clear that this is something we could probably do,” Patel said. “It turned into an idea I basically took to the transit agency MARTA in 2014.”

Getting the train moving

Once Soccer in the Streets board member and executive director Phil Hill understood Patel’s pitch to repurpose a vacant amphitheater in Five Points MARTA station into a turf soccer pitch, he thought the idea could be a game-changer for Soccer in the Streets.

Hill and his colleagues spent years trying to break down the barriers between America’s pay-to-play club soccer model and the “pick-up” style Hill and Patel learned the game from in the U.K. Kids in soccer gear aren’t uncommon to see on public transit in England. Hill said as a boy he played for his village team alongside his neighbors and they would travel to play other villages. That neighborhood club concept carried over to StationSoccer.

Soccer in the Streets brings fields and equipment to break down the financial barrier, while MARTA’s affordable public transportation bridges neighborhoods.

“It’s very much how soccer runs in the rest of the world,” Hill said. “I played for my village team. They’re small clubs. That was our idea, to create small clubs with a couple of hundred kids and an adult team. Everyone would play for their local community.”

Meanwhile, Eales laid the groundwork for what would become MLS’ most-supported franchise in terms of average attendance per game. Perhaps all of these ideas collided in perfect timing. Eales was engaging with communities and building soccer interest in Atlanta United at the same time this idea took shape. Hill, who’s been a board member of Soccer in the Streets for 17 years, sees it differently.

“People say, ‘You’ve got great timing with what you’ve done. You’ve sort of hit the title wave of interest in soccer,’” Hill said. “We actually had the worst timing because we tried to do this 30 years ago and it didn’t work. We just sort of hung in there.”

Eales helped coordinate the launch of Atlanta United’s foundation in tangent with the development of StationSoccer. The now 30-year-old nonprofit made a perfect partner to reach potential fans in the heart of Atlanta, while the foundation would fund the programming for StationSoccer once the pitch was built.

“It was important for us at this stage, we were just coming into the city itself,” Eales said. “This was a brilliant idea for Soccer in the Streets, but how do we get this to happen? Obviously, if you’ve got Arthur Blank’s blessing, that helps when you’re trying to get things done. From Atlanta United’s perspective, this was a dream partnership, a dream idea.”

So Soccer in the Streets had its plan, and it had “Uncle Arthur’s” blessing. That, however, was not the hardest part of making StationSoccer work. Developing a turf pitch on unused land isn’t as simple as building a sandcastle on the beach, even with Patel’s construction experience and the coffers of Blank’s Foundation.

“The process to operate on station land, which has a federal government interest, is more complicated than you would imagine,” said Jacob Vallo, head of MARTA’s Office of TOD and Real Estate.

MARTA’s move

MARTA’s history as a public transit authority in Atlanta has been a rocky one, and that tumultuous past hasn’t created a risk-taking, progressive company.  

The controversy began at birth. The Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA in 1967, but it wasn’t until 1971 that it finally nailed down its funding through a sales tax in the City of Atlanta, Dekalb and Fulton Counties. By that time, support for the rail system in suburban Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties had disappeared.

MARTA’s history is fraught with political unpopularity, fair or unfair, which has influenced the transit authority’s priorities when it comes to taking big business steps. Even as the railways and buses have become part of more Atlantans’ commutes today, it’s struggled to convey its message to some metro-Atlantans in the suburbs. In March, a referendum for MARTA to extend its northeast-bound line into areas of Gwinnett County was rejected by voters.

So MARTA was born and grew up in turmoil, and that set the stage for a cautious company moving forward. Around the time Soccer in the Streets pitched StationSoccer, things were looking up for MARTA in terms of ridership. Still, the transit authority did not immediately meet Patel’s proposal with enthusiasm.

“They were more skeptical,” Patel said. “Their first thing was, ‘Look, we’ve never really done anything like this before, so can you show us where this has been done before?’ And two, ‘Do these communities even play soccer?’ That was their thing. Atlanta United wasn’t around and soccer wasn’t on the forefront of a public transit agency’s mind at the time. It was more of a case of holding their hand through this journey, and I had to walk them through and say, ‘There’s never been anything like this done before.’”

Youth players play league matches at StationSoccer West End. (Courtesy of Soccer in the Streets)

MARTA wasn’t the only one in Atlanta to underestimate the spike in soccer popularity that came with the activation of an MLS franchise. StationSoccer was a good opportunity for MARTA to make good on some of the community initiatives it sought to fulfill by engaging with communities, but MARTA’s concerns were also regarding how best to identify good locations for pitches.

Undeveloped land is always in demand. A federal program that encouraged investment in low-income areas suddenly made some of MARTA’s land in high demand. It put MARTA in a difficult position.

The company was happy to work with Soccer in the Streets on a progressive project, and even provided decommissioned railway cars to be used as learning centers for the non-soccer related programming. But MARTA would take on the role of an evil developer if a low-income housing project in one of these opportunity zones displaced a StationSoccer project.

To avoid building on land that could potentially be marked for Transportation Oriented Development (TOD), MARTA and the Georgia Transportation Alliance identified seven possible stations, including Five Points and the second StationSoccer location at West End, where new pitches would be plausible, and MARTA deemed the project a good use of its land.

“We’re going to continue to look at parcels of property that are inactive and have little to no interest for other purposes,” Valo said. “Where those two things converge, this is a great use to pursue for the community.”

So far, the network of stations is slowly working its way to the vision of a transit soccer league. That continued with the groundbreaking at East Point on April 12.

“Credit to MARTA. It’s not easy to get a soccer pitch built in a stadium,” Eales said.

League of Stations

With East Point StationSoccer underway comes the prospect of adding life to an Atlanta suburb known more for its high-crime rate than its soccer potential. The fourth StationSoccer location is already marked for Eastlake station.

StationSoccer East Point is a partnership with the City of East Point, the Atlanta United Foundation and the Transformation Alliance. Local business owners are also collaborating. Chris Wiley of Oz Pizza and Joel Baskin, of Joel M. Baskin, P.C. operate their businesses on either side of the field.

The program’s success bears promise for East Point and other future members of the “League of Stations.” Eales’ own twin sons play in an under-4-year-old league at West End every week.

“My lads, we’ll get them on the train, because we live by a MARTA station. We go to West End and 24 under-4s are playing on a Wednesday,” Eales said. “It’s exciting to see people who never had the ability to play soccer in the past. I just love to see that.”

If Patel built a turf pitch in an empty amphitheater in downtown Atlanta, is it possible for the StationSoccer concept to work in other cities? Very possible, Patel said, with a little creativity.

“The more you look and start looking at spaces and get creative with that, anything is possible,” he said. “There are spaces for these mini fields everywhere. You just have to work with the municipalities, local businesses, chambers of commerce, councils … If everyone works together — and we’ll show that in our next project (East Point) — by working with cities and businesses, it’s possible to do anything. It’s just getting on the same page.”

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