A radical idea to build a five-a-side pitch into an Atlanta subway station is enlivening once-dead plaza space while bringing the sport to underserved communities – and more are on the way
Like many good stories, this one begins with a crazy idea and a bunch of naysayers. Sanjay Patel arrived in Atlanta and wondered why it was so difficult to find a game of pick-up soccer. As far as he could see, there were no spontaneous games going on in local parks. Anything he did find was super-organized, he had to drive a car to, and – how to put this politely? – white.
As it turned out, Patel wasn’t alone in this experience. Since 1989, a local non-profit called Soccer in the Streets, run by English expat Phil Hill, had bussed kids around Atlanta in rental vans so they could play games. Money and geography meant pay-to-play academies and structured teams were out of reach for many local kids.
Patel volunteered with Soccer in the Streets and, in his travels across the city, made an intriguing discovery. Atlanta’s train stations were nearly always adjacent to a giant parking lot – part of a 1970s park-and-ride policy that never really took off. The parking lots were barely used for what they were intended.
“I started thinking,” says Patel, “What if we convert some pieces of this land to soccer fields and use the train system as a network for people to get to games?”
Years later the result is Station Soccer, a collaboration driven by Patel between Soccer in the Streets, MLS club Atlanta United, and Marta, Atlanta’s public transportation agency. Patel’s now not-so-crazy idea saw the world’s first-ever soccer pitch built within downtown’s Five Points station. The location is important. Five Points is Atlanta’s busiest public transport hub and originally designed as a grand multi-purpose civic space that never met its full potential.
The Five Points field, opened in 2016, has proven such a success with communities from across the city that Marta says it is set to green-light up to 10 more locations in the next few years – beginning with two pitches to be opened at the West End station by the end of 2018.
The facilities are free for kids to use while fees for adult pick-up games and other events flow into Soccer in the Streets community programs. The end goal is for teams playing at station pitches to form a league where players use the train system to travel around the city for games – opening up low-cost organized soccer to previously ignored communities.
“My first meeting with Marta, I think they thought I was crazy,” recalls Patel. “Atlanta United was not around yet and someone asked, do people even play soccer in this city? But that motivated me. There was a lot of banging heads against walls, there were a lot of naysayers.”
Amanda Rhein, Marta’s senior director of transit oriented development, said initial skepticism from within the organization was overcome after it saw how reinvented public space could work.
“This was so different to anything we had done before,” says Rhein. “After six months, it proved to do exactly what we hoped it would. It has driven new ridership at the station, it has created an amenity for our riders, and has built goodwill with communities we serve.”
By no coincidence, those communities Marta serves are the same ones that Patel and Soccer in the Streets saw as underserved by soccer.
“Economics and transportation are the biggest issue for kids,” says Phil Hill, Soccer in the Streets’ executive director. “They can’t get to games and can’t get to where they need to play.
The vision here is to connect families and communities around the city.”
Hill tells a story of working with kids in Soccer in the Streets programs who have never been to downtown Atlanta – even though they live just a mile away. Transportation issues mean people are often locked into their communities. Hill tells another story of ironically writing a check for $2,000 for his own child to join a local soccer academy while realizing too many families he shares the city with have incomes that make the four-figure fees sometimes required to play the game inconceivable.
“There is a huge barrier there, it is a systemic issue, and it is not being tackled in the right way from US Soccer,” Hill says. He details a conversation with a parent on the sidelines of a game organized by Soccer in the Streets in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.
“The parent said to me, ‘Why do people think we don’t want soccer? We want soccer in this community. We are parents and we want options for our kids just like you do. We want access to it but the way soccer is set up means we don’t have access.’”
The success of Atlanta United’s debut Major League Soccer season – the team averaged close to 50,000 fans for games during 2017 – has given soccer a credibility boost in the city. Atlanta United’s foundation – launched before the team had played a game – financially supported the Five Points project, recognizing underlying issues in connecting the sport to the local community.
“Soccer has been a middle class sport [in the US] and not necessarily the easiest game to play if you are from the poorer regions in the area,” says Darren Eales, Atlanta United’s President. “There was an economic hurdle where you weren’t able to play because if you got onto a travel team you had to be able to pay the costs.”
Eales said, like others, he was initially skeptical of Patel’s proposal to turn train stations into soccer pitches. Patel showed Eales the Five Points site – an amphitheater wrapped in Marta security fencing because it was unused – and was sold.
“At first I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’” says Eales. “But we walked around the site and it was perfect. Now I get a buzz every time I walk past it.”
Eales, speaking the day a Fifa inspection team toured Atlanta to see the potential 2026 World Cup host city, believes Station Soccer is a concept that can be replicated around the US and be a legacy project if the 2026 tournament takes place in North America.
“This is hopefully the start of a bigger scheme that can be rolled out around the country,” says Eales.
Other cities share similar transportation systems and a soccer disconnect. San Francisco and the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis and Denver are some locations kicked around as being ripe for projects similar to what has taken off in Atlanta.
Marta’s Amanda Rhein acknowledges interest from other public transport agencies across the country and how Station Soccer now ticks many boxes for Atlanta: “I love that it enlivens the station, brings more people to the station, and creates a transit-accessible destination. It gives people a reason to use our system. We think it has been really successful.”
Like many good stories, this one has a twist. Patel, a real estate developer in another life, says Soccer in the Streets showed him how people in the city he was living and working in – neighbors he wouldn’t typically come into contact with – lived.
“When you mention soccer to some parents, straight away they say that is not for us because it is too expensive,” Patel says. “But soccer is not too expensive around the world. There is a serious poverty issue in this country and it is right on our doorstep. What would happen if you opened up soccer in the US to low-income communities? What we have stumbled across is a way to connect these communities and soccer. Transit is going to be the glue.”
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