SANJAY PATEL AND PHIL HILL
Board Member and Executive Director, Soccer in the Streets
Phil Hill, executive director, and Sanjay Patel, board member, of Soccer In The Streets have this in common: They both grew up in England where soccer was readily available to all.
When he first heard about Soccer In The Streets, Patel’s initial thought was, Why is there a nonprofit for soccer? “I was shocked to learn what the cost is to play this sport in the U.S. It has become a white, middle class sport, whereas globally, it’s a working-class sport, and all you need is a ball,” says Patel, a commercial real estate development consultant who moved to Atlanta in 1999 and joined the board in 2010.
Soccer In The Streets aims to make the sport accessible to youths in all of Atlanta’s communities, but the mission runs much deeper than that. Taking a holistic approach, the organization wants to empower its more than 4,500 kids not only on the field, but also in small group classroom sessions, through hands-on experiences and activities, and participation in youth leadership councils.
“Our goal is to give kids in underserved communities a better opportunity in life,” says Hill, a resident of Inman Park who initially got involved with the organization in 1998 as a board member. Hill wore many hats over the years, including donor and board chair, before assuming the position of executive director last year.
“I was initially looking for a way to combine soccer, the sport I love, and a way to help young kids who lack opportunity,” explains Hill, who moved to Atlanta in 1993 after a backpacking trip around the world with only $260 in his pocket.
Today, the timing is right for the nonprofit to blossom, as the sport is in the spotlight because of Atlanta United FC coming to town (and parents asking for it as an alternative to head injury-stricken American football). The impact of the pro team on Soccer In The Streets is significant. Beyond giving the game a new “cool” factor and a broader local audience than ever before, the team’s charitable arm, Atlanta United Foundation, funds Soccer In The Streets’ grassroots programs. It supports school programs and has invested in the Station Soccer concept that is Patel’s brainchild.
In 2013, Patel took MARTA from his Candler Park residence into downtown, where he was involved in a hotel development project. He also noticed the vast amount of unused space. One of the biggest hurdles in offering soccer to underserved communities is access, and a light went on for Patel: What if they brought soccer to public transportation hubs that kids and their families could easily get to? Currently, Station Soccer, which launched in 2016 and is the world’s first soccer stadium within a station, is in a five-year pilot phase at the Five Points MARTA station. An expansion announcement is slated for later this year, upon approval from MARTA.
In addition to kids’ programs, Station Soccer offers space for adult leagues. The 99-by-66-foot field is conducive not only for youths to get more ball time, but also for adults who no longer have the stamina to navigate a fullsize field. The fees that come from the adult playtime benefit Soccer In The Streets. “It’s always been our goal to act as a bridge between one side of the tracks and another, and now adults who play are asking how they can get involved with the kids’ programs, refereeing or coaching,” Hill explains.
The organization is a pioneer in social impact soccer. Hill was recently invited to speak on innovation around the sport at the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Urban Soccer Symposium. He says, “No one else has done what we are doing anywhere else in the country. What we’re doing in Atlanta acts as a blueprint for the rest of the country. Putting Atlanta on the map fuels the fire to scale this here.”
STORY: Karina Antenucci
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna