Red Bulls' next gen soccer stars could be formed in NJ's largest city
As soccer balls flew across a pitch emblazoned with the New York Red Bulls logo on Wednesday, Wellington Morales took a break from running around to express his feelings toward playing with the pros.
"It's awesome," he said, "because it gives you that feeling like, 'What?!'"
Morales, an eighth-grade student at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School, is one of more than 2,500 Newark students the U.S. Soccer Foundation expects to participate in its after-school soccer program on 20 mini-courts it plans to build across the city.
The foundation intends to partner with the Red Bulls and the Newark school district to erect the pitches over the next five years so students will have safe places to play, learn teamwork, make friends and exercise. The Red Bulls and the U.S. Soccer Foundation have committed to fully funding the mini-pitches, w hich are outdoor hard surfaces.
Total investment in the school district between the mini-pitches and the after-school program is expected to top $1.5 million, the organizations said.
"This day is for you," incoming Superintendent Roger Leon told students Wednesday at a ceremony celebrating the first pitch built as part of the initiative. "This mini-pitch behind me is brought to this school and to this city for a purpose."
The school district plans to use its mini-pitches during recess and physical education class, in addition to during the after-school program, Leon said in an interview after the ceremony. He said they will be particularly useful after classes, when students may not have other options for safe activities.
The U.S. Soccer Foundation will train Newark community members to lead its after-school program, called "Soccer for Success," Ed Foster-Simeon, the organization's president and CEO, said in an inter view. Eighty-six percent of students who participate in the program see increased development outcomes, like avoiding fighting, and 83 percent see health improvements, he said.
Newark is the third U.S. city to commit to building these mini-pitches and expanding soccer programs in underserved communities, according to the U.S. Soccer Foundation. Chicago and New York City each plan to build 50 pitches as part of the foundation's goal to build 1,000 safe places to play soccer by 2026.
The foundation has already built other pitches in New Jersey, including in Newark, East Newark and Kearny, but Wednesday's launch symbolized the organization's new push to drastically expand its pitches and the number of students its program serves.
Foster-Simeon said the foundation's goal is to make soccer "everyone's game" by creating spaces for it in communities that may not otherwise have safe areas in which to play.
"Soccer and s port is really an extension of the classroom," he said during the ceremony. "We learn teamwork, we learn perseverance, we learn grit. We learn how to lead, we learn when to follow."
Connor Lade, a defender for the Red Bulls who was born in Morristown, said creating this initiative in Newark was special to the team because their arena in Harrison is so close by. Soccer taught him a lot of life lessons, he said in an interview, and he was happy to see the joy on the students' faces as they kicked the ball around Wednesday.
Plus, Lade said he had already noticed a ton of soccer talent on the mini-pitch.
"Maybe we won't have our jobs too much longer," he said, laughing.
NJ Advance Media reporter Delaney Dryfoos contributed to this report.
Marisa Iati may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Iati. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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