I recently participated in an important and timely conversation about why soccer matters, not just to me, but to communities across America and beyond. While there can be no doubt as to where the entire U.S. women's national team focus is in the lead up to the 2015 Women's World Cup, I welcomed the opportunity to contribute to a different thread of conversation when it comes to soccer and success.
The U.S. Soccer Foundation serves as the major charitable arm of soccer in the United States, and is focused on using football (as soccer is known throughout the rest of the world, including in Germany where I spent several years as a player) as a vehicle for social change through support for sports-based youth development programs. By focusing its programs on urban and underserved communities, the organization is committed to creating safe, accessible, affordable programs that deliver health and social outcomes. From its "Passback" program that provides equipment for children around the world, to its "Soccer for Success" afterschool program that in collaboration with community-based organizations serves children in more than 30 cities across the country, the U.S. Soccer Foundation helps grow the game by growing its impact on our communities.
Alongside U.S. Soccer Foundation president and CEO Ed Foster-Simeon at the 2015 Urban Soccer Symposium, I had the opportunity to engage with more than 250 community leaders who are leading incredible organizations making a difference through football and sport. When Ed asked me about what the sport has meant to me, my first thought was that while it has influenced my personal journey, what I think makes soccer so incredible is its potential to help change the world outside of professional leagues and international tournaments.
For me, football has provided both the community and confidence that continue to shape my life on and off the field. As a young girl, football is where I met the people who to this day are my best friends. It is also where I began to learn about the important relationship between hard work, teamwork and fun. It has been such a huge part of my life, and yet it is not my life's entirety -- dating back to my time at Penn State, I always believed that "student" came before "athlete," and I was fortunate to have a coach who reinforced that I needed to be strong in the classroom to be strong on the pitch.
Symposium participants asked me about how I would describe the value of soccer to parents, especially those with young girls. My response was that I believe that sports offers an incredible pathway to learning life skills. Football helped me build confidence on and off the field, and taught me to grow through moments of success and disappointment. I know, firsthand, that soccer brings people together -- all it takes is a ball and a few people, and the seeds of friendship are planted.
At the same time, it's important to recognize that there are some concerning trends when it comes to youth participation in sports, including pressure to specialize in a single sport, rising costs, and elite programs that seem to start younger and younger. These issues were touched upon at the Symposium, and are also at the heart of the Project Play initiative led by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.
In support of its mission, the U.S. Soccer Foundation aims to "ensure that children in underserved communities have easy and affordable access to quality soccer programs that support their physical and personal development." As a result of the Foundation's collaboration with partners that include Prince William Soccer, the Boys & Girls Clubs, America Scores, and city departments of Parks & Recreation, urban and/or at-risk kids have access to mentorship, along with the benefits of participation in physical activity through soccer. I feel fortunate to be a part of a football community that includes leaders who recognize the power of sport to make a difference, and who like so many of my coaches are defined not only by their knowledge, but by their ability to bring out the best in every member of their teams.
The kickoff to the World Cup is less than a month away, and it represents an opportunity my teammates and I have been working toward for most of our lives -- the honor of representing our country with the aim of realizing the dream that has carried many of us through endless hours of training, injury rehabilitation and personal sacrifice. Yet, there is another side to the sport that I love -- one in which success isn't defined by goals or medals, but instead by community impact and social change.