Youth soccer league teaches life lessons

A South Bronx United practice at Macombs Dam Park.

South Bronx United emphasizes both schoolwork and footwork

While coaching a boy’s soccer team in a corner of St. Mary’s Park in January 2009, Andrew So and his wife Stephanie decided the kids in their youth soccer league needed a new place to play.

During South Bronx United games, the young players were running on dirty mush from melting snow underfoot while dodging baseballs flying at them from other parts of the field, So recalled with a chuckle. 

“There was no other place to play, we had only that small space,” he said. “We couldn’t get access to the field. It cost money.”

Three years later, the organization boasts 550 kids and more than 100 volunteer coaches. Thanks to some funding from the City Council, the boys no longer have to duck errant fly balls. They now play on a field at Macombs Dam Park.

But it’s not all fun and games for the kids. Along with soccer practice, they are required to get tutoring twice a week before they can play. Students whose grades fall off are forced to miss games while working on their schooling.

“Because of tutoring, my grades went up,” said Erwin Dircio, 13. “Andrew always keeps track of where we need to improve.”

Andrew So supervises a practice session for South Bronx United.

So started playing soccer in high school, then played on the Stanford University team in California. He said he loves the game because it unites people, teaching them to work together while providing those who play with a kind of “freedom.”

“You don’t have to worry about anything else, just focus on the game, focus on proving yourself, focus on working as a team,” he said. “I coach soccer, I talk about soccer and I come home and watch soccer.”

So came to the Bronx in 2006, where he taught Special Education at  New Day Academy Middle School in Morrisania. He soon got involved in a local soccer program and realized it was an efficient tool to help kids stay focused.

“Kids were coming from a single-parent home or from a home where parents were almost absent,” he said. “Kids were almost living on their own. They wanted to be a part of something”.

He said he chose to create South Bronx United because the kids needed help local schools struggled to provide. Many of the teachers in South Bronx schools are inexperienced, he added.

Out of 53 Bronx schools in danger for closure this year, 31 are located in the South and South Central Bronx. The city’s Department of Education has threatened to close four of them.

“I wanted to go to a community where students really needed this,” explained So.

The young people who play in South Bronx United say the league is one of the bright spots in their lives.

“He is the best coach,” said Williams Oussinou. “He is strict, but he gives us everything we want. I only have to go to a tutor.”

“We are like family here, we all know each other, we have the same mentality. I feel comfortable being here, because it’s like me being at home,” said Khadim Diop, 15, who plays on a team coached by So. “Besides my parents, he is the person who encourages me most. He is like a father figure to me.”

All of the team’s volunteer coaches and tutors are young professionals or recent college graduates, including Wilson Calle, 30.

“The kids enjoy it and they are showing up for practice. That’s a good sign that they are actually interested in being here,” said Calle.

So says he is struggling to find new revenue sources to keep the league going, but sees the move to Macombs Dam Park as a step in the right direction.

“Where we are right now is 25 percent of where we want to be,” he said. “The goal is to serve as many kids as possible.”