Street soccer 'empowerment' for homeless

The Eighth Annual Street Soccer USA National Cup The Eighth Annual Street Soccer USA National Cup competition is played in Times Square on Monday in Manhattan. (July 22, 2013). Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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For Nicole Chisolm of the Bronx, turning her life around was as simple as playing soccer and being around positive people who inspired her to get back on her feet and out of a homeless shelter.

On Monday, Chisolm, 28, joined 200 men, women and teenagers from across the country -- many of them homeless -- on a mini pitch set up in Times Square by Street Soccer USA.

The nonprofit group, which was set up to help the homeless improve their lives through competitive soccer, held its National Cup tournament in the heart of Manhattan. Several of the players will be picked for the Street Soccer USA national team that will compete in the Homeless World Cup in Poland next month.

Chisolm, 28, said competing Monday is another way she has turned her life around.

"This is my second year," said Chisolm, who was putting on her shin guards in preparation for her match. "Soccer actually helped me get my mind off of it [being homeless]."

Chisolm said her soccer team and its organizers at Street Soccer USA became "my family. It's not only about playing soccer but supporting each other and being part of something."

Under a steamy hot sun, the soccer event had teams from 16 American cities play against each other on a pitch that was shorter than a basketball court.

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Dozens of spectators stopped to watch the refereed games where players sweated it out on the hard street surface set up as soccer field. Plays were being highlighted by a sports announcer as a backdrop of vibrating hip-hop music played.

The Times Square event was designed to raise enough money to send a team of eight men and eight women to the international competition next month, said Lawrence Cann, 34, the founder and president of Street Soccer USA.

The goal, Cann said, is to help those on the street who think they have no hope to repair their lives get a second chance. "It's healing," Cann said.

Last year's champions were from Chile and played in Mexico.

Enzo Blanco, 20, of Santiago, Chile, a member of the team, attended Monday's competition and said a neighborhood soccer group in his home country helped him stay focused on school and now he is applying for college scholarships.

"I always had a home but there was not always enough to go around. My father works in construction and my mother works in a mini market," said Blanco, who sells two-liter water bottles for $1 on Santiago's busy city streets.

Being in Times Square was an experience he never imagined, he said.

"I never thought I would be here with all my good friends. It makes me feel good and that changes the way I feel about my life," Blanco said.

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