A soccer team from New York brings together a diverse group of players, giving the notion of a melting pot a healthy stir.
Downtown United is the American dream condensed into a single soccer club.
The 15-and-under team from Manhattan is an athletic melting pot, a microcosm of New York. Most are second-generation Americans. Some hail from Colombia, Trinidad and Nigeria. Others are Mexican, Irish, Argentinean, Peruvian, German, Ecuadorian and Indian. It's the U.N. of youth soccer.
"This is the American dream in a nutshell, isn't it?" coach Oscar Cantu said. "To come to a country where there's opportunity and get access to that opportunity. Through soccer, they're gaining access."
As the team competes in the Schwan's USA Cup at the National Sports Center in Blaine this week, Downtown United remains a family, undaunted by socioeconomic limitations.
At the Western Hemisphere's largest youth soccer tournament, players say they have received a few ugly comments. But five years together means having each other's backs, deflecting racism while embracing uniqueness. Goals speak louder than fists.
"This is our team, and we're all a family," said defender Chris Schrum, one of United's captains. "We don't think, 'Oh he's black, he's Mexican.' When things get heated, we back each other up and stay calm."
Diversity, however, has its advantages for the Region I Premier League champions, who qualified for this tournament by winning their age group at the Columbus Cup in Pennsylvania last fall.
"Everyone stands out in his own way," said center forward Suleiman Harunaya, who immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in September. "Everyone has their own game pattern, but we just play as a team. That's why I think we're one of the best in New York."
Nathaniel Brown refuses to die a statistic.
In other words, the Trinidadian won't allow himself to end up among the 65 percent of African-Americans in Manhattan's outer boroughs who drop out of high school.
"I want to make something of myself," said Brown, a defender whose twin, Nicholas, also plays for United. "If I wasn't on Downtown, I'd be on the streets doing delinquent stuff. Being on this team has helped me refrain from doing that."
The ultimate objective isn't victories or trophies. It's college matriculation.
Cantu, an investment banker, holds regular goal-setting meetings and checks on his players' report cards. His fiancée helps with college admissions and SAT prep.
"We came to find out that it's not cool to be smart in their schools," said Cantu, a first-generation collegian himself. "We encouraged them to aim high, because there's no reason not to. They didn't know that 90s or 95s might allow them to pop up higher on the radar for colleges."
Soccer provides the path.
"This opened up my eyes," said Cantu, who played at the USA Cup 13 years ago. "Through soccer, I was able to see what was out there, and that's what it's all about. At the most simple level, we're trying to get them to see what's out there, to see the kids who are going to be successful later in life and hopefully emulate that."
Dreams of the future
The night after Downtown United was bounced during group play at the 16U Elite Tournament this past weekend at the NSC, Harunaya had a dream.
While awaiting the team's first USA Cup game Tuesday, he envisioned his team hoisting the trophy. The victory validated all the hard work, such as when snow forced them to practice in a parking garage at New York's Pier 40.
The well-tended fields at the NSC are a far cry from a pillar-filled parking lot.
"When we all walked out of the airport, we felt like professionals, because we're traveling across the country to come play soccer," Schrum said.
Strolling beside the water during a team trip to Minnehaha Falls on Sunday, midfielder Maxi Ojeda recalled the team's food festival in June, when parents cooked authentic Latin American dishes to help raise $4,000 for the trip.
The family came together that night at Manhattan's Central Bar. The players, 85 percent of whom are on scholarship, made speeches about Cantu and how this team has affected their lives.
It was a brief glimpse into what makes Downtown great. Diversity joined together, providing access to soccer and to opportunity.
Downtown is the world, United.
|NY Mets - WP: M. Harvey||3||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - LP: E. Jackson||2|
|Cincinnati - LP: S. Marshall||3||FINAL|
|Philadelphia - WP: J. De Fratus||5|
|Houston - LP: E. Gonzalez||4||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - WP: J. Wilson||5|
|Seattle - LP: L. Luetge||3||FINAL|
|Cleveland - WP: V. Pestano||6|
|Toronto - LP: M. Buehrle||0||FINAL|
|NY Yankees - WP: H. Kuroda||5|
|Tampa Bay - WP: J. Hellickson||12||FINAL|
|Baltimore - LP: J. Hammel||10|
|Arizona - WP: T. Cahill||9||FINAL|
|Miami - LP: K. Slowey||2|
|Los Angeles - LP: P. Rodriguez||5||FINAL|
|Atlanta - WP: P. Maholm||8|
|Detroit - WP: R. Porcello||2||FINAL|
|Texas - LP: N. Tepesch||1|
|Boston - WP: A. Wilson||3||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: J. Roenicke||2|
|Milwaukee - LP: W. Peralta||6||FINAL|
|St. Louis - WP: J. Garcia||7|
|San Francisco - LP: M. Bumgarner||9||FINAL|
|Colorado - WP: J. De La Rosa||10|
|Chicago WSox - WP: C. Sale||3||FINAL|
|LA Angels - LP: C. Wilson||0|
|Kansas City - LP: J. Shields||1||FINAL|
|Oakland - WP: S. Doolittle||2|
|Washington - WP: R. Soriano||6||FINAL|
|San Diego - LP: H. Street||5|