Soccer…Harlem’s New Renaissance

Soccer has been gaining interest over the last several years in America, and now it has made its way to the inner cities. FC Harlem’s Director Irv Smalls has been at the forefront of this movement and he is now looking to take soccer and the program in Harlem to a whole new level. Smalls is working on a project to build a state of the art year-round soccer facility in West Harlem.

Smalls was a college football player and was part of the 1995 undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions that won the Rose Bowl. He began to transition from football to soccer in 2000 when he joined MLS. When Smalls watched the 2002 World Cup and later in 2004 saw French superstar and current New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry play a match with his former club Arsenal he was hooked. Irv joined then Harlem Youth Soccer Association, rebranded it FC Harlem, and set off on a journey to use soccer to positively impact the lives of youth in Harlem.

FC Harlem’s grand vision is to establish the first inner city leadership and soccer school in the United States. FC Harlem Lions is where young people from ages 5-19 will have the opportunity to develop quality soccer skills, but more importantly be prepared to be positive contributors to their local community and the world.

Smalls came up with the name LIONS so that people will strive to be Leaders In Our Neighborhoods on and off the field. FC Harlem’s objectives are to prepare youth for post high school academic opportunities, provide job skills to improve workforce opportunities, and establish pathways for competitive soccer. The organization emphasizes the values of community service, confidence, and commitment. The new facility will have classrooms bringing together the importance of soccer and youth development. In addition to this facility being a place to develop soccer skills, FC Harlem intends to create internships programs with local colleges and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) around facility management and sustainability in urban environments. Irv intends this will be “green project” from design and construction to operations and maintenance meeting LEED certification.

Getting to this point has not been without serious challenges over the years, from the community’s acceptance to soccer, lack of playing and program space, pressure from larger outside soccer clubs wanting to move in, or just the over competitive high cost pay-to-play model for youth soccer.

But media exposure along with support from the professional soccer industry, local community, and individuals have kept the small organization in play and ready for the next step in its growth and vision to develop leaders out of the neediest kids in Harlem.

FC Harlem and Smalls have already received ringing endorsements from high profile people in the Harlem community and across the country. Below are some quotes:

“FC Harlem soccer can turn kids lives around and be that program that makes a difference so kids can be successful.”- United States Congressional Representative, NY 13 District Charles B. Rangel (at FC HARLEM FIELD in 2010)

“We have a number of communities that are absolutely vital to the future development of the sport and the success of the National Team. The African American community is at the top of our list. FC Harlem is unique in that it has a good connection to Major League Soccer.” President of United States Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati (governing body of the Men’s and Women’s National Team)

“Irv is a special guy. You meet him, you’re instantly captivated by his optimism, enthusiasm, and his real commitment to the sport of soccer, but more importantly, to improve the lives of young people in his community.” – Commissioner of Major League Soccer Don Garber

“I think FC Harlem is part of the educational process of turning out full rounded human beings.” –  Daniel Rose, Chairman Emeritus of HEAF

“I love the sport of soccer. I really want to see it in more urban communities like the one I grew up in and start to bring in more people of color. It’s challenging because of the space requirements but it’s a challenge that is worthwhile due to the connection to the world. FC Harlem Lions is a renaissance for the sport in America. I think given the proper financial support soccer in Harlem will continue to thrive and could be replicated in inner cities around the country.” – Don Cogsville, President of the Cogsville Group and former US National Team Player

“FC Harlem has been very successful in trying to navigate the NYC bureaucratic maze. Trying to keep a program of this nature alive is really a full-time job. What do I mean by that…just trying to find space, in or around New York City, not necessarily Harlem is challenging. 10, 20 years ago, it was easy, easier to find space in Harlem. Harlem was not the so-called hot neighborhood. Irv Smalls has done a monumental job in trying to keep the program alive and always finds some space over there by the Hudson so FC Harlem can have a field of its own.

“It’s our job to make sure that institutions such as FC Harlem find a home and keep them at home. It’s a fabulous program. You probably will have other communities that want it or try to copy it. But there is only one Harlem! We need to make sure that soccer in terms of Harlem stays that way. You know this is God’s country out here. I think Irv has done a fabulous job in terms of promoting the FC Harlem program. It was not too long ago that he brought David Beckham up here. Half of the folks uptown didn’t even know who David Beckham was!” – Harlem State Assemblyman Keith L. Wright

As you see from the quote above David Beckham who is one of the most popular soccer players of all-time came to visit Harlem back in 2007 for a soccer clinic. During his interview with CNN Beckham commented on the value of soccer for Harlem youth. Jozy Altidore of the US National Team and member of Sunderland FC in the Premier
League made the trip to Harlem with Beckham. “This program gives kids hope that if you work hard at something you can succeed in it,” Altidore said. He also stated, “It’s a way out for some of these kids and shows them that they can make it.”

To take FC Harlem to the next level is to build the first ever year-round soccer facility in West Harlem. Once the field is open you will see kids playing pickup soccer games similar to what they do in basketball, along with quality instruction from professional coaches. More importantly, as discussed earlier, this will be a center for leadership development.

FC Harlem is currently looking for funding with hopes that this facility will be open and running by the Fall 2016, which will be right after the next Summer Olympics. FC
Harlem is actively putting together a team of stakeholders from the Harlem community, private sector, and soccer community to move forward in this amazing endeavor. The impact of this project is groundbreaking and will be felt around the world.

Never before has there been a project like this that brings soccer and Harlem community together. Irv says “The inner cities are gardens of innovation, creativity and leadership, and given the resources for proper cultivation they will yield positive contributors to the global society. I believe that this facility will be a center of innovation.”

Harlem is full of historic landmarks such as the Apollo, Theresa Hotel and Rucker Park. I am sure upon completion the FC Harlem soccer facility will be added to that legendary list.