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Street Soccer USA founder: Teaching life lessons through soccer

We talked to Lawrence Cann about why soccer can be an important tool for helping the community.

Street Soccer USA

If you were to spend any time talking to Lawrence Cann, you would hear one thing being stressed over and over again: community. It's a simple message, but one that Lawrence has held close to his heart from when he was a kid and currently as the head of Street Soccer USA. When Lawrence was in elementary school, his family's house in Virginia was lost to a fire, but it was a sense of community that helped him and his brother Rob through.

In our own lives, when I was a little younger, when I was 9, our family's house burnt down. It was this tough time, this traumatic thing, and what really made life normal was having a soccer team and that community of people, and the parents helped us out, picked us up from practice.

That sense of community possessing the ability to uplift others is why Street Soccer USA exists and serves over 2,000 people a year in 16 cities.

SSUSA kids close

Credit: Street Soccer USA

The organization comes from somewhat humble beginnings. Lawrence was working with a North Carolina soup kitchen when he saw kids in need of... something.

"The motivation was really just getting involved." Lawrence starts, "We were volunteering at a soup kitchen in North Carolina, and there were these 18-24 year olds there on the street corner, they're kind of looked at causing trouble, they needed the service as much as anyone else."

It was then that he tried getting the kids to play team sports like basketball before settling on soccer. Part of the reason he chose the beautiful game is the relatively low startup cost. More importantly, it was his own personal experience of soccer helping him in a time of need.

We really felt like when this bad thing happened, we had this great community for us, and it was really apparent that a lot of the folks we were working with, these young guys I'm describing, just didn't have that, and there's no better way then a team sport to create that instant community, accountability, mentor-ship, all those lessons I learned through soccer, about working with others, it was just natural. We played a little basketball, a little soccer, but soccer was just a better game, it was more of an egalitarian thing, you just need a ball and a net. Didn't matter how tall you were, there was no preconceived notion about who was good, who was bad. For the folks who were immigrants, it was something that helped them, something of a fresh start. We had this great traction from the very beginning. We kind of formalized it into a program and had this great outcome. I think sports was a real relatable way to understand what we were doing.

Eventually Street Soccer USA grew to 16 cities including New York, Sacramento, and San Francisco. The organization isn't just about playing soccer, but also serves as a medium for helping both adult and youth players get the help they need.

SSUSA helps its participants by setting up programs for job placement, health coaching, and after school education by partnering with outside organizations to pair those in need with trained professionals. All help is given in house as SSUSA has worked with the partners to develop programs to suit the needs of those who participate. It's not merely about setting up programs for the organization, the follow through is an important aspect. SSUSA continuously measures success rates and works to increase the number of people who go on to find success.

Local soccer teams have also got into the act of helping the cause. SSUSA has existing partnerships with the Sacramento Republic of the USL and the New York Cosmos of the NASL. The Cosmos Chief Operating Officer (and former New York Red Bulls' executive) Erik Stover even has a seat on the board of the New York arm of SSUSA. Cosmos players like Lucky Mkosana attend SSUSA practices and the team donated tickets to the recent US Open Cup match against New York City FC. Lawrence also traveled with the historic club on their recent trip to Cuba and helped lead a coaching session.

We got the chance, when the Cosmos went to Cuba on this trip, they took me [Lawrence] to deliver a community clinic to kids, using our methodology of teaching life through soccer. For example, we talk about building triangles on the field, a kind of important element to soccer, you have the ball, you have to use your, have to have support on the right, support on the left, and get into that support position for the person with the ball. And when you are under pressure, use your outlet pass.

So, we go through these drills, and we have eight of these, but we go through the drills, and the triangle, and talk about the soccer context, and at the end, we talk about it in terms of your life. In terms of what is your triangle off the field, you know, when you are under pressure, you're angry or thinking about lashing out, do you have an outlet pass? Somebody you trust, you can talk to. Do you have these triangles of support in life? In school, do you have the relationship with your teacher so you can ask for help? Do you have other students you can work with?

While the New York Red Bulls are not an official partners, the team has been involved with the organization, donating tickets to matches. According to Lawrence, "The Red Bulls have been great. We do some stuff in Newark, and they give us a ton of tickets that we're able to bring kids who otherwise wouldn't have the chance to go to the games." The team's captain, Dax McCarty, has also affiliated with SSUSA in the past and will be attending the 3rd annual Time Square Cup on July 12th.

SSUSA trophy

Credit: Street Soccer USA

The Time Square Cup serves two purposes for SSUSA. First, it gives its players a chance to play competitive matches against those from other cities; in total 32 teams from the US, Mexico, and Canada will be at the event in New York. Matches are played 4 a side (1 goalkeeper and 3 field players) in a walled in court.

The second purpose is to highlight the work SSUSA does and help raise funds to continue its mission. All money raised through the event goes back into SSUSA and youth programs around New York City.

Of course there's also the added benefit of greater awareness for the altruistic goals of the SSUSA program.

At the end of the day, what we're trying to do, on the youth side, is build these soccer clubs, focused on not developing great soccer players, but developing great human beings.

To learn more about the program and find out how you can help, you can visit the Street Soccer USA website and connect with them over social media.