Tension filled the air as a little more than a dozen girls in their soccer uniforms waited to hear the big news at Tower Park in Des Moines, Iowa. Who would be the team captain?
Coach Clare Desio built the suspense as the girls tried to tame their jitters.
"With the most votes ... I have this captain's band from back in my day," she said and held up a bright neon arm velcro band. "I want you guys to have this for games. So, the person who got the most votes, you will have this on during games."
The girls giggled and held on to each other, waiting for Desio to finish her speech.
Near the end of her armband presentation, Desio's eyes shifted to one girl wearing a black bonnet and a purple jersey.
“The U-12 captain is ... Sarah.”
The Sarah in question, Sarah Ngandu, probably jumped a foot into the air when Desio announced her name. She fell into her teammate's arms as she shrieked upon the news.
"I thought no one was going to choose me because I'm usually, like, the girl who wants someone else to be the captain. Like, this is my first time trying to be the captain," she admitted.
Sarah said she wants to be a captain who motivates and inspires her teammates.
The 10-year-old was born in Zambia and her parents are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When they first moved to the United States, they lived in Las Vegas.
"Like, in Las Vegas, it's really great and hot. But there was, like, no jobs that pay really good. And like, imagine 12 people living in a three-bedroom apartment," Sarah recounted her own situation.
But now in Iowa, she’s glad to say her parents both have jobs and they live in their own house.
Gabriel, who came to Iowa as a refugee from Liberia, created the program so kids could have a level playing field, both in soccer and in life.
"We believe that the field, the playing field, is not level. So, that's why we get a lot of refugees, immigrants. We saw, specifically for refugee kids, [they were] not able to compete with their peers in so many different ways. So, we provide soccer, because they love the sport of soccer. So, we use that as a draw," Gabriel explained.
Gabriel's wife and co-founder Tricia, "Auntie Tricia," is also from Liberia. She directs the other programming Genesis offers: skills like sewing, career development and being exposed to the arts, and also schoolwork and education.
"That's when I come in with a backup plan. So, I tell them what will you be, you know, if you become a professional soccer player and get hurt and you cannot play, what's the next step? Having that education is the next step," Tricia said.
But both Tricia and Gabriel emphasize that soccer is a strong way to introduce a child to those other plans, to help them work toward a goal and realize they can accomplish it.
"The kids playing street soccer, they're not learning about sharing the ball, they're not learning to communicate. It's just strictly competing. But with being organized teams, they're learning. It's not just [from] me, it's the team. You know, we're working together as a team for one goal. But street soccer doesn't give you that opportunity," Gabriel explained.
And he said without his club, he doesn’t think these kids would even be able to play. For many of the players, the club covers their costs to play.
"Soccer is leaving behind many kids, not only refugee kids, not just African kids, many kids."
"If we were not there, there wouldn't be a lot of them playing. A lot of clubs will have some Black kids playing, but it will be very limited, because a club cannot take on about 80% of the players being on scholarship," Gabriel said. "Soccer is leaving behind many kids, not only refugee kids, not just African kids, many kids. I am concerned. We are on a pathway to ... we have found the solution. The solution is really what we do."
And that is working soccer into, not only something achievable for different socioeconomic backgrounds, but also blending it into culture and education. It's affordable, or free of cost, to play on Genesis Youth Foundation's soccer teams. In return, Gabriel and Tricia ask parents to volunteer their time and efforts.
UFA Soccer Academy Des Moines via Kassidy Arena/IPR
Jaime Leiva shares Gabriel’s concern about access to the sport, and the pathways it can offer. He’s the director and a coach for United Fútbol Academy (UFA). UFA has a similar structure to Genesis — it's important to practice scoring goals, but it's even more important to have the grades needed to eventually score those goals for a college team.
Leiva's family is from El Salvador. Most of the kids in his club are Latino and speak Spanish. And like Gabriel, many of his players have a scholarship or a discount.
"I want kids in our community to have the opportunities that I had through the game of soccer, understanding that there's much more to soccer and much more opportunities out there than just winning a local soccer game."
"I want kids in our community to have the opportunities that I had through the game of soccer, understanding that there's much more to soccer and much more opportunities out there than just winning a local soccer game," Leiva said.
As a child, his soccer mentors encouraged him to pursue soccer while achieving a post-high school education. And he did.
Leiva said part of the beauty of soccer is that it can bring kids of all backgrounds together. But here in Iowa, he has noticed a division in access. He said there are some wealthier leagues that have sort of gone their own way, leaving teams like his and Gabriel’s out.
Gabriel said his club usually has to pick and choose which tournaments they can compete in because of finances. But when a tournament or a specific league charges too much to participate, that means they're out.
"In my ideal world, every club in Iowa should be playing in the same league," Leiva added. “That is the negative with what’s happening, not only locally, it’s happening on a national level, is kids aren’t getting the opportunity to play each other."
And Leiva has a point, according to Jon Solomon. He’s the editorial director for the Aspen Institute, whose main initiative is Project Play. They’re focused on equal access to youth sports. Solomon described soccer as having an “up or out” model, which can leave some players behind.
“In the sense that, all right, you want to keep playing, you have to play on, you know, this travel team and you keep having to pay costs. And if you don't play on that travel team, you're essentially out. Like there aren’t many other ways to play soccer in our country if you think about it," he said.
And COVID-19 has exacerbated the gap. In one of his reports, Solomon found in April 2021, "parents from the wealthiest households were twice as likely as all other families to report spending 'substantially more' money and time on youth sports now than prior to COVID-19. ... While kids from all incomes have spent less time on sports now, having wealth seems to buffer a child’s loss of hours in free play, practices and games."
Tom Cove, the president and CEO of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, described soccer as being pretty organized, and taking a lot of time and money.
"One of the issues is, it doesn't necessarily require ... the sport doesn't require that," he said. "It can be done with the most minimal of resources."
But then, he countered, that might mean the child can't play in those more elite fields. Further, when a child isn't exposed to competitive soccer, or any sport, before high school, they are less likely to play in a high school sport. And many times, high school sports are either free or inexpensive.
And sports, he added, bring more benefits than just college scholarship opportunities or physical exercise, they also help with mental health and building support systems.
"Over many years, we've seen a gap in activity that is correlated with income. So, the higher the family income, the more activity the family generally takes. We call that the income activity gap. We've identified it's a serious issue, amongst many others. And it shouldn't be, because physical activity and sports by their very nature should not be expensive, they should be some of the most accessible elements of social life in America," he said.
Cove's research has found a correlation between soccer participation and race/ethnicity. Although he said the research can't conclude white children are more likely to play elite, competitive soccer than other races and ethnicities, "there's something going on there."
If kids want to get college scholarships through soccer, their odds are much higher if they play on a competitive travel team. And the Aspen Institute's Jon Solomon’s studies have found that’s actually why many minority parents sign their kids up for soccer — so they can get those college opportunities.
Elena Spellman emigrated to Iowa from Torino, Italy. When she saw how expensive it would be for her three kids to play in a sport — she was accustomed to it being a much lower cost — she was shocked. She first signed her children up to play on a club that was too expensive for her. Then she found Leiva's UFA.
"When I discovered UFA, for me, it was a blessing. Not only on the side of having a competitive league, and not having to pay that much, but also, in the fact of having my kids feeling like they're part of the family," Spellman said.
Spellman still has the accent from her home, and her children speak Italian. But she said they're learning to speak Spanish alongside their teammates, in addition to improving their soccer skills. Spellman said she has seen clubs around the state trying to make as much money as they can.
"If you have money, you can be part of this group that goes and travels and goes to these places, then has the highest competition. And if you don't, because your club is not that big and doesn't make as much money, then you can't do it. [That is what] I think is, like, ridiculous. Everybody should have the chance to get this competition. And the money shouldn't be a thing by any means," Spellman said.
Spellman again was shocked to learn US universities cost so much more than Italian ones. She knows soccer would give her daughter not just athletic skills, but educational opportunity. Her 15-year-old daughter Ziva hopes to someday earn a scholarship to play soccer in college. Leiva is her coach.
His role is 100% volunteer-based (his day job is in insurance). So, even if some tournaments and leagues were more financially inclusive, coaches and directors like him wouldn't be able to attend any required day-time meetings.
Fortunately, Gabriel is the full-time director of the nonprofit Genesis. Tricia is still a nurse, balancing her responsibilities between her day-to-day job and the kids in the program.
Soccer officials have noticed the access gap, but they're pretty limited in what they can do.
“I think it’s important to note that there’s a lot of interest by all involved to make the game as accessible as possible to everyone. Unfortunately, logistics, the costs are really prohibitive just to run a game," said Dan Cataldi, the executive director of the Iowa Soccer Association. (Both Genesis and UFA play in tournaments organized by the Iowa Soccer Association.)
There are costs associated with soccer that are just hard to avoid, said Cataldi, like renting fields, paying referees and the costs to travel to tournaments.
Cataldi said the solutions, although they may not be easy to find, can be found with some creativity and patience. The Iowa Soccer Association does offer a program called Olympic Development Program for elite players. It offers some scholarships for kids on teams like Gabriel's and Leiva's.
"Iowa soccer is still relatively young compared to a lot of other sports," he said. "We look at organizations like Genesis Foundation, and a couple of other clubs that have joined us in the last couple of years, and we've been quick to admit them as members, because we want to encourage some of the things they're doing. Some of them take a holistic approach that is far more than just soccer."
Back at Tower Park, Nadege Lenge plays defense. She’s 11 and she’s already studying technical engineering. She likes that she can combine soccer with her career goals.
“My teammates are like, they’re like my sisters, you know? So, when I'm with them, I feel like I'm a part of a family," she said.
The team captain, Sarah Ngandu, said she maybe wants to be a teacher and a professional soccer player at the same time. You know, once she finishes college.
An earlier version of this story was originally published by Iowa Public Radio.