Congratulations to the 2016 Street Soccer USA Social Change Cup Champions!

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Photo Credit: Street Soccer USA

On May 29, 2016, the “Up Top” Street Soccer USA team won their fifth national tournament in Philadelphia. Coming from behind, they were able to pull through and win the championship—but it wasn’t easy.

On top of everything else, this soccer team that brings young people experiencing homelessness together also found itself “homeless” for a while before the national tournament. After months with no regular venue for practice, they were finally able to find a place to practice in the indoor basketball court at Gethsemane Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, by the time they secured that space they had already missed a number of practices to help them train for the national tournament. (While they still practice at Gethsemane once a week, they hope to find an indoor soccer pitch to practice on in the future.)

The Up Top team was created in 2008 through a partnership with YouthLink and Street Soccer USA. While it hasn’t always been affiliated with YouthLink, Jose Acuna—YouthLink’s longest-serving employee and Outreach Manager—has always been in the lead as the team’s coach.

Coach Jose explains: “Street Soccer USA is a program that uses soccer to help youth achieve their goals. The same rules we use on the soccer field, we use in real life. It helps build a support system.”

The Up Top street soccer team—which was named by a former player as a nod to Minnesota’s placement on the map (as well as where they wanted to be in the league)—is unique among the United States teams. Thanks to the large Somali population in the Twin Cities, the team is a mixture of religions, nationalities, and experiences. The one thing every member of the Up Top team has in common is that they are all young people who have experienced homelessness prior to joining the team, including some who are refugees and asylum seekers.

Although the team’s diversity might have made things more difficult, the team has used their differences as a way to learn and grow together. “We practice at Gethsemane Episcopal Church. Many of our players are Muslim. We have a number of Catholics. We have great discussions about theology and religion in a way to learn. It has created a beautiful environment—soccer really is an international language.”

One thing that Coach Jose has noticed with his team, no matter what’s happening on or off the court, is how they work and learn together. “We have worked very hard to create harmony. If someone makes the wrong pass, you support them—next time you get it and you try to help. In this tournament, they were losing 4–1 and [it would have been] easy for a team to get discouraged, but these guys knew that their opportunities would come and that’s what we want to teach them. You have to be patient, you have to stick with the plan, you cannot give up.”

And, speaking of opportunities, one member of the team has been selected to take part in the Homeless World Cup in Glasgow, Scotland, this July as part of Team USA! At the same time, The Sanneh Foundation is partnering with Street Soccer USA to give the team summer coaching jobs working with children’s soccer programs all over the Twin Cities.

Now that the team is part of YouthLink again, Coach Jose is hopeful that they can restart the women’s Street Soccer USA team, as well—a team that won all three years that it went to the national championships!

So join us in congratulating the Up Top soccer team on their fifth championship! We are so proud of the team here at YouthLink, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for them!

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