As the soccer world is put on pause during the COVID-19 crisis, Sounders FC players are finding new and creative ways to make an impact in the region.
Recently, club captain Nicolás Lodeiro and Homegrown midfielder Danny Leyva surprised the U-15 team from Atlético de PacNW, a volunteer-driven soccer program that increases accessibility to high-quality soccer for kids from underserved communities, by hopping on a Zoom call and hanging out with the kids.
“These kids are still raving about it,” said Aaron Byers, a volunteer coach and administrator who helped facilitate the surprise ZOOM call. “They’re shocked that these guys would take the time to talk to them. It’s hard to explain because these kids just live and breathe soccer."
Over a decade ago, Jesús Cardeñas, a local coach and administrator, launched the program and worked tirelessly to increase equity and in youth soccer for underrepresented communities. Four years ago, Byers came aboard to assist in the program, while Danny Rogers, who previously worked with elite youth programs in Southern California, joined up this past year as the volunteer Tactical Director.
Funded through sponsorships from local businesses like Pagliacci and Axia Home Loans, as well as partnerships with PacNW and Starfire Sports that help cover the costs of league fees, field space and referees, Atlético provides a platform for the boys to move onto bigger clubs on scholarships and have access to global methodology to escalate their development. Over the past few years, dozens of boys from the program have made their way onto the Washington EPD team, with several going advancing to the Regional ODP squad and Sounders Discovery Program.
The boys on the Atlético de PacNW 2006 team pose for a picture at Starfire Sports | Courtesy of Aaron Beyers
“They excel on a more expedited pathway to higher teams,” said Byers. “Many players go from us to big clubs in the area. They’re able to progress along the player pathway quicker. And that’s the reason we set this program up: they weren’t getting any opportunities before because they couldn’t pay for a variety of reasons to play. After they get out in our program and get noticed at EPD, ODP or Sounders Discovery Program, a lot of clubs want to give them scholarships. There are many more opportunities for them.”
After recreating his legendary shoe phone celebration, Lodeiro shared bits of wisdom and advice about what it takes to become a professional soccer player, while Leyva discussed the importance of setting ambitious yet achievable goals.
Atlético, which operated under the name FC Eclipse prior to its affiliation with PacNW, has collaborated with Sounders FC for years. According to Byers, Sounders Academy coaches have run dozens of training sessions for the boys and provided tickets to First Team matches. That connection fueled a newfound fandom for the kids, as most of them grew up in households supporting Liga MX teams.
Added Byers: “Three or four years ago, when I started coaching the 2006’s, none of them really knew who any of the Sounders players were. But now they know all of them. As soon as Leyva joined the call, they were all excited and knew him right away. It just shows that these kids watch soccer. It’s their culture. The Sounders’ outreach and support of these kids has helped facilitate a larger fanbase in this community for the club.”
The boys on the Atlético de PacNW 2006 team celebrate after winning a tournament at Starfire Sports | Courtesy of Aaron Beyers
Many of the boys on Atlético gravitate towards the Spanish speaking players on the Sounders. So, when Lodeiro and Leyva – who is just three years older than the kids they surprised – took the time to hangout and answer their questions, it made their dreams of one day playing for the Sounders feel more tangible.
“Danny came from a club that was very similar to [Atletico de PacNW],” noted Sounders FC Director of Player Development Henry Brauner. “It was a similar setup; he’s a product of that environment. If he can do it, so can other kids.”
“When they see somebody like Danny doing it, they believe they can do it now,” added Byers. “That’s their dream. That definitely keeps these kids playing longer.”
We’re all in an unprecedented situation as the world rallies together to stop the spread of COVID-19. With everyone stuck at home, it’s heartwarming to see the club’s captain and a top Homegrown prospect come together to make a difference in the community.
“It’s something they’ll never forget for their whole lives,” said Byers. “They’ll always remember that day.”