Ahead of their upcoming Street Soccer Cups in New York City and San Francisco, Eight by Eight speaks with Lawrence Cann, co-founder of Street Soccer USA
Founded in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2004 by brothers Lawrence and Rob Cann, Street Soccer USA is a national network of grassroots programs that aim to use soccer for social change. Through their programs, they hope to make a measurable difference in the lives of underserved youth in urban areas and special needs populations, including homeless families, adults, and people in recovery. On this Sunday, July 12, Street Soccer USA will be hosting the third annual Times Square Cup, a showcase of skills that includes both supporters and program participants from around the world. Eight by Eight spoke with Lawrence Cann about the history and future of Street Soccer USA.
What is your background with soccer?
Our parents didn’t know anything about soccer, but we both grew up playing the sport. We had a passion for it. It was the thing that I did well throughout high school, and I played in college at Davidson College, Rob at East Carolina University. Then I decided not to play anymore at school but realized how much I had gotten out of if. At that point I was just grateful, and not thinking I would do much more formally with the sport. Then, of course, it came back big time with this program.
What is the origin story of Street Soccer USA? What was the inspiration to use soccer to alleviate the stresses of poverty and homelessness?
After our family’s house burned down when we were kids, we had a great support network, a lot of which came from people involved in the sports we played. Fast forward to when I was starting to do a lot of volunteer work: I saw kids on the street that weren’t that different or that much younger than I was [when the house burned down] and they didn’t have the same safety net and community. It just seemed natural to get involved in sports at that point. You hear about gangs “looking for the right things in the wrong places,” and here was community, adult mentorship, structure, life skills. All the things primary to these kids getting back into school, a job, or getting focused.
What does success mean for Street Soccer USA?
Our vision of success is when the people who’ve come from the program are running the program. We’re seeding and trying to create, or enabling I would say, these soccer cultures to take place. We want the community to own them.
We do two special programs. One is partnering with teen homeless centers, recovery programs — really working to help kids enhance their outcomes. The other thing we do are these community based clubs, which are based in low income housing areas, neighborhoods where there are not a lot of after school programs. It’s really all about training and empowering people. At the end of the day, we’re coaches not instructors. Sport teaches naturally and the people know the answers, we’re just guiding them along the way.
What about the Street Soccer Cups in New York and San Francisco?
We started doing them as a showcase for our program, as a motivator. The message is that our participants have a lot of self-worth and what they’re doing is valuable. So we said let’s go to the most iconic places, with Times Square being the epitome, and set an inspirational stage for our whole program — to show participants that they’re part of something. When we saw the security guards not watching the games but playing on the field, we realized we had something marketable.
The tournaments feature 4v4 street soccer games, what we think is a really exciting format. It’s great for development, it’s fun, it’s fast: 3v3 with a goalkeeper, on a walled court that’s 72 x 52 feet. There are 9.8 goals per game on average. It’s kind of like a Tough Mudder of soccer. Games are 15 minutes long and you play a bunch of them.
Now the events in New York and San Francisco are every year, and we’re going to do one in Philly next year. Eventually we want to establish these street soccer cups in each city, where anyone who’s involved in soccer at any level can play and help fund soccer social change programs. Once we have more than three cities, we can start to play them at a national level, with the winners of each city playing each other.
What has been a favorite moment in your time with the organization?
There’s so many, so it’s really hard to choose one. I tend to want to talk about the individuals that I’ve become close to, but it’s definitely our first tournament. We didn’t have any money. We planned it, we had the stadium, the field; it all seemed very conceptual. Then you’re there, you’re waiting, and one van rolls up. And then everyone shows up. These were people all on the same journey. We saw it happen and it was ten times what we hoped. You could see people from St. Louis, people from New York, and you saw the solidarity — a moment of what street soccer is all about, creating this family. The hair stands up on the back of your neck.
How can people get involved?
There are three ways to get involved: First, play in our street soccer cups and our adult amateur leagues. Second, you can come and be a coach or mentor. Third, support one of our players for a year. A year of weekly practices, off the field mentorship, and other programs we put together for development costs $300. So you could sponsor a player — that’s a tremendous help.