Exhausted and sweaty after a three-hour soccer practice, 18-year-old Emmett Pour was more than ready to go home.

But home wasn't an option.

Pour doesn't have one, unless you count places like Harbor Lights, a Salvation Army men's shelter near downtown Minneapolis where he was bunking at the moment because the relative he was staying with is now in jail.

Despite the uncertainty of where he'll be living, Pour has one twice-a-week appointment that he always looks forward to. He plays for Up Top, a street-soccer group of 15- to 21-year-olds that manages to reach a growing number of homeless young adults who might otherwise fall between the cracks.

Soccer -- especially during the World Cup -- is an intense form of entertainment for most fans. But caseworkers involved in the street-soccer program see it as something more: a tool for social change.

"With soccer, you can reach guys you normally don't," said Jose Acuna, a youth outreach advocate for YouthLink, the social-services provider that supports the Minneapolis team. To be able to play, the youths have to be making progress in their other goals, "like getting a GED, finding a job and finding a permanent housing situation," said Acuna, who doubles as a head soccer coach.

He and his fellow caseworker coaches often end up helping players solve problems like anger management and money issues before or after practice, held two nights a week at the Gethsemane Episcopal Church gym in downtown Minneapolis.

"These kids, some don't have phones, you never know where they'll be, but they tend to show up for soccer," Acuna said.

This month, the Minneapolis players will join hundreds of other homeless youths from 19 cities converging on Washington, D.C., in rented vans for an annual national competition that's part of a network called Street Soccer USA (SSA). The team is seeking $4,000 in donations from foundations and individuals to fund the trip.

This team is hot

Street soccer is different from regular soccer, played on a hard surface with only four members per team -- forward, goalie, left wing and right wing. Each practice begins with a rigorous warm-up, with several sets of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks, knee-punishing grinders and jogs around the gym.

Acuna and three assistant coaches, all caseworkers as well, play side by side with as many as 25 Up Top team members who rotate in and out and practice different positions. Sometimes it gets so hot in the gym that the fire alarms go off, as they did one recent night, prompting a visit from a fire crew.

When they leave at night, they scatter. Sometimes home is a car or a friend's house. Most Up Top players are not actually living in parks or alleyways at the moment, but are what YouthLink terms "precariously housed," which can mean they are temporarily staying with family members or friends.

Pour was the youngest man staying on his floor at Harbor Lights. He didn't feel completely safe there, but didn't have much choice. Shelters have struggled to keep up with the growing need, and beds for homeless youths are in much shorter supply in the Twin Cities than even those for adults.

"The challenge with shelters is that you can only stay for so long and then your time is up and you have to move on," said YouthLink spokeswoman Mary Haugen. "Some of the young people have to move from shelter to shelter or friends' houses until transitional housing is available."

Idris and Seynab Geyre, a brother and sister, were bouncing from couch to couch before recently moving into an apartment paid for by Idris' weekend job as a referee. When players run out of shelter options, they're often forced to forget soccer. A couple of players have stopped coming because their circumstances prevent it; one is spending his nights under a bridge, Acuna said.

Women get involved, too

On any given practice night, the Up Top members who show up will be mostly guys, but at least three or four young women often take part. Minneapolis will be one of only three in the upcoming U.S. Cup to bring a separate women's team, a new category this year.

All-star teams of both sexes will then be sent to an international World Cup in Brazil. The women's team will be called the Lady Salamanders because in mythology, the lowly creature represents strength and courage.

Jasmine Morris, who resembles a springy, compact antelope more than a salamander, can't wait to hop in a D.C.-bound van for the competition with "my secret little family," as she calls the Up Top team.

Morris, who just turned 19, has been homeless for two years after being kicked out of her dad's house for breaking rules and unable to get along with her mother's boyfriend, she said. After hopping between friends' places and shelters, she now lives in transitional housing through the Bridge teen shelter in south Minneapolis while she completes an office-assistant internship at the public-relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley. She wants to go to beauty school, then possibly become a veterinarian, but first she's working on the few credits she needs to obtain her high school diploma.

Soccer, Morris said, "keeps me out of trouble. You can't feel like going drinking or anything when you have to work all day and then go play soccer. You've got to focus."

Staying in the game

Street Soccer USA has its roots in a project started several years ago by college soccer star and homeless-shelter volunteer Lawrence Cann in Charlotte, N.C. Cann's interest in the psychology of being homeless stems from a childhood experience. When his own family's house burned to the ground, he felt that other relatives and the community at large surrounded him with a blanket of support.

"I felt like a baby tossed in the air, and then caught," said Cann, who now runs the SSA program full time, based in New York. "Homeless people don't have that. Homelessness is a symptom of the breakdown of community. We build that up again through sports."

Cann said the soccer program is being studied by university researchers to assess how and why it works, particularly to help reduce recidivism, a common problem for the homeless.

Many of the teams, including Minneapolis, allow "graduates" to come back and play during practice and local games. "This is a nice way to keep a long-term relationship going and help keep them from becoming homeless again," he said.

As for Emmett Pour, he's moved into the Hope Street Shelter for youths, and is looking forward to playing goalie in Washington, D.C., in a couple of weeks. Asked where he thought he'd be if he weren't involved with YouthLink, he said, "It wouldn't be nowhere good."

Practicing twice a week with the team "brings out good feelings in me," he said. "I think, 'I can do that, just like the guys on TV.' "

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046