Soccer’s crossroads: The future of the sport in D.C.

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. Soccer Foundation has planted roots for the game to grow in D.C. and around the country. (Courtesy U.S. Soccer Foundation)

WASHINGTON — Soccer in Washington, D.C., has reached a significant crossroads, with every aspect of the world’s game colliding on the same day.

On Thursday, the U.S. Men’s National Team will play its most significant game in recent history, taking on world second-ranked Germany with a chance to advance to the knockout stage in the World Cup. Just hours before kickoff, D.C. soccer supporters will gather in the Wilson Building to voice their support for a new D.C. United stadium.

And quietly, underneath it all, the U.S. Soccer Foundation will continue to do what it has done with growing reach and effectiveness since its inception: spread love and enthusiasm for the game.

Major international sporting events sometimes go over budget, causing economic shortfalls in their wake. Such miscalculations are used by opponents as justification for not hosting such events in the future, be it the recent Olympics or even the World Cup.

But in 1994, the United States hosted its first World Cup, and despite soccer’s popularity at the time being just a fraction of what it is now, the World Cup Organizing Committee generated $50 million from the event. With those proceeds, they founded the U.S. Soccer Foundation, a 501(c)3, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this World Cup.

In those 20 years, the foundation has seen that investment pay off fully, and then some. It has awarded more than $60 million to soccer organizations and field-building initiatives across America. Fostering the sport at the youth level, it has helped change how the game is viewed by the next generation of Americans, leading to the record-breaking crowds watching this year’s World Cup.

On Sunday evening, the foundation held an official nationwide watch party for the U.S.-Portugal game at 26 venues in 20 cities around the country.

The D.C. event took place at Town Tavern in Adams Morgan, which packed about 150 rowdy red-, white- and blue-clad patrons upstairs for the emotional rollercoaster of a game. Reports from around the country have similar crowds attending each event, bringing the total to more than 3,000 people.

Watch Party

Patrons pack Town Tavern for the U.S. Soccer Foundation watch party Saturday. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

“We wanted to have a collective event nationwide with a collective footprint,” explains Krista Washington, the associate marketing and communications manager for the foundation. “We just really wanted to leverage our anniversary this World Cup to showcase the work that we do.”

Part of that work includes their Donate a Photo campaign that ran throughout the party and will remain open through Aug. 31. Each photo contributed through the app provides a $1 donation to the foundation to help provide gear for youth soccer players.

The watch parties aren’t the only indication of the foundation’s national reach, though. Their Soccer for Success program, started five years ago, has grown from four cities and 4,000 children to 25 cities and 18,000 this year. After an aggressive push with this year’s Cup, they are taking aim at 34 cities and an enrollment of 34,000 next season.

“We have a huge wait list for people that want to get into our programs,” explains Washington. “So we see that it’s something that’s growing, and we’re just trying to reach out to accommodate that as best we can.”

The foundation has created or enhanced more than 1,000 fields around the country over the past 20 years as well, a number that continues to grow. But strong support here at their home in D.C. is a driving force.

“We know soccer is very much a part of the D.C. culture,” says Washington. “You can see it every day on every field, almost, that people love soccer here.”

That love for soccer will converge with the future of the game at the professional level here in D.C. on Thursday, with the city hearing followed by the U.S. Men’s National Team’s final, crucial group stage match.

While government officials claim the timing is coincidental, soccer supporters are not sold. They will, at least, be given first opportunity to speak when the hearing begins at 9:30 a.m., with the game beginning at noon.

And while the particular timing on Thursday may be inconvenient for those hoping to watch the game, one could argue that it couldn’t be better given the city’s recent response to this year’s World Cup, as ratings for the U.S.-Portugal game easily outdrew the NBA Finals and World Series averages.

A decision won’t be made on the new D.C. United stadium for months, and even if it is approved, construction would not be completed for several more years.

Until then, the U.S. Soccer Foundation will continue to grow, flying beneath the political volleying, fostering the next generation of players and fans of the game.

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