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BY STEVE HICKS | Although Pier 40 may be slowly sinking into the Hudson River, from it has risen a unique soccer team that is winning national notice. This June Downtown United Soccer Club’s U16 (under age 16 as of August 2011) team achieved a goal they have been seeking for many years. After a six-game elimination series, they won their State Cup Championships, which included 40 of the strongest club teams in Eastern New York
Downtown United is aptly named. Based at Pier 40, at West Houston St., the soccer club offers top-level coaching to local recreational and travel level soccer players from ages 5 to 18. DUSC also draws from that wealth of talent and development to combine with players from the four other boroughs to form premier teams that compete at a regional and, more recently, national level.
DUSC makes every effort to avoid the shortsighted training that stresses winning at all costs in favor of an attitude that emphasizes ball control and creativity. According to the league’s mission statement: “DUSC is committed to developing talented soccer players who are confident, creative and comfortable on the ball. … Applied technical and tactical awareness is taught through small-sided games, providing each individual with a maximum number of touches and decision-making opportunities.”
Most of this year’s U16 team members have trained and played together under these principles for the past four to nine years. This is the first DUSC team to emerge from this farsighted training. And it’s beginning to show. The team’s creativity and chemistry is beautiful to watch and increasingly frustrating for opponents to play against. This spring the team won back-to-back premier tournaments in New York and Virginia. Currently, the team is ranked second in the country among all club teams in their age group (15- and 16-year-olds).
The team’s creativity is an outgrowth of its astonishing diversity, reflecting the city’s rich and unique cultural mix. The current roster of 20 players have parents who emigrated from such countries as the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Nigeria, Montenegro, France, Germany and India. Representing New York is a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. On the field you might hear more Spanish than English, but their true language is soccer.
After winning the State Cup, the team traveled in late June to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the Region I Championships to compete against 15 other State Cup champions from Virginia to Maine. The winning team qualifies for the six-team national championship in South Carolina.
The DUSC U16’s played a terrific tournament over five days, losing only in the finals to a strong and familiar team from Lehigh Valley. For most of the final game it looked as though DUSC would prevail as their possession game constantly frustrated Lehigh’s more direct approach. But as the referees allowed a more physical game to ensue, the match went Lehigh’s way. It was a tough loss but an unprecedented season for DUSC.
Coach Alex Cuba couldn’t have put it better as he spoke at the team dinner the night before the final Regional Championship game:
“Gentlemen, in the beginning of the year I mentioned that one of the things I wanted was for us to be like a family. I wanted you guys to treat each other like brothers. Looking around here right now, I couldn’t ask for anything better. You guys are a family; you treat each other like brothers; some of you are brothers.
“One thing is for sure: You guys always have each other’s back on the field and off the field. That’s something I’m truly proud of and love to see. That is the key reason why we are here today. When you combine that with the amount of hard work you’ve put in at practice, you are invested in being champions.”
“Hard work” has been the operative phrase for this DUSC team. During peak season, there are often two games a week. Practice is three times a week. The season is 10 months long. During the winter months the team practices in low temperatures on whatever snow-free surface is available. Not long ago, in order to prepare for a tough spring schedule, they held regular winter practices in a remote corner of a parking garage.
The team’s reputation is beginning to precede it. Recently, a soccer parent from Virginia asked, “Aren’t you the team that plays on top of buildings?” The truth is they play their soccer on, in and in between buildings — a true urban team blasting out on the national scene.
To get to and maintain this level, the DUSC team must constantly travel throughout the entire Mid-Atlantic coastal region to play in tournaments and league games at the most competitive level. Next year’s plans include national tournaments in Florida and Texas. Eighty percent of the team is on scholarship, so this is a tall order and fundraising becomes increasingly essential.
The coaches’ and club’s goal has always been to provide these players with the opportunity to showcase their talent in the best competitions in the region, and potentially the nation, regardless of their ability to pay. But the ultimate objective isn’t victories or trophies. It’s college matriculation and the opportunity to broaden their athletic and academic horizons.
The tournaments that the team competes in offer a significant and unequalled opportunity for many of its players to attract the interest of college coaches.
The team’s previous coach of three years, Oscar Cantu, set the example. A hard-working youth player from Arizona, he earned a full athletic scholarship to Holy Cross and eventually an investment position at Morgan Stanley. He now takes time to give back to youth players. He holds regular goal-setting meetings and checks on his players’ report cards. His fiancée helps with college admissions and SAT prep.
“This is the American Dream in a nutshell, isn’t it,” Cantu said, “to come to a country where there’s opportunity and get access to that opportunity. Through soccer, they’re gaining access.”
To learn more about the DUSC team and be a part of its success, visit www.dusc.net or contact coach Alex Cuba at email@example.com.
Hicks is manager of DUSC’s U16 team