Let's take a moment to step away from the pro soccer scene and highlight a great cause in the local community.
On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Soccer 6 - an organization uniting the region's six Division I college soccer programs - announced it will host a youth clinic and exhibition game day on April 6 at Penn Park, to benefit the Starfinder Foundation.
Starfinder is a Manayunk-based youth soccer organization that brings in underprivileged children from across the city to teach lessons on and off the field. It runs programs at its own facility and at Philadelphia public schools. In all, Starfinder welcomes 500 to 600 kids from ages 6 through 18 each year.
"We are really interested in finding ways to raise our own visibility," Starfinder executive director Heidi Warren said. "We're trying to figure out how to mobilize and galvanize the local soccer community on behalf of kids who are generally not all connected to mainstream resources [or] mainstream opportunities."
Warren is excited to be able to give Starfinder's kids - especially those from the city's immigrant population - a chance to connect with the wider soccer community
"They bring with them a love of the game," she said. "We create a place where it builds on their enthusiasm and connects them with other places beyond Starfinder."
Next month's event will surely help. The clinic will cost just $10 for kids to enter, cash or check, with all proceeds going to Starfinder. It will feature coaches and players from the Soccer 6 overseeing a variety of skill stations. There is no pre-registration required.
After the clinic, there will be a series of exhibition games on the Penn Park fields featuring the Soccer 6 teams. More details are available here.
Penn coach Rudy Fuller is spearheading the Soccer 6's planning of the event. His inspiration came from another charity effort that is a big part of the local college sports community.
Those of you who are college basketball fans know that the region's Division I hoops coaches are deeply involved with the American Cancer Society's Coaches vs. Cancer Program. Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli is the current national chair of Coaches vs. Cancer, and Temple coach Fran Dunphy served in the role before him.
With help from the Big 5 office (and Drexel, of course), the local schools and Philadelphia's ACS chapter host multiple fundraising events annually. The most famous is a NCAA tournament bracket-picking breakfast at the Palestra on the morning after Selection Sunday. It's one of the great social events on the city's sports calendar, and one that I've had the privilege of attending every year for almost a decade.
Since 1996, the Big 5-Coaches vs. Cancer partnership has raised over $11 million for the American Cancer Society's efforts. That is more than any other local ACS chapter in the nation.
Fuller is no stranger to the Palestra, as he'd be the first to admit. So it is a point of pride for him to follow a trail blazed by his basketball brethren.
"We didn't have to look far to see the tremendous work that the Big 5 coaches have done with Coaches vs. Cancer," he said. "We kind of used that as a model, trying to find a local organization that we thought would be a good fit for our programs giving back. Starfinder being an inner-city soccer organization was a natural fit."
The region's basketball community is famously tight-knit, from CYO and high school programs right up to the 76ers. It has been since 1955, when La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Villanova launched the Big 5 city series.
In 1979, those five schools joined with Drexel and Philadelphia Textile to form the Soccer 7. They later became the Soccer 6 when Textile, now called Philadelphia University, dropped from Division I to Division II.
Though the Big 5 fractured for a time in the 1980s, the soccer programs have long been close. Now comes a chance to weave some new threads among the region's greater soccer community a bit.
"Philadelphia has that community and family-based environment that these coaches feel very passionate about," Villanova's Tom Carlin said. "We're looking to continue that tradition."
That the event is taking place in the center of the city carries its own significance. There are plenty of great youth soccer facilities in the region, as we all know, but the Soccer 6 wanted an urban venue. So they chose Penn Park, with its sweeping views of the Center City skyline as a backdrop.
"I think it's a great idea to have it here and reach out to urban areas," Temple coach David MacWilliams said. "As a kid, I grew up always playing soccer on the streets kind of like we do basketball, 3 vs. 3. That's what I did as a kid, and I don't know if there's enough of that going on, not just in Philadelphia but in cities around the country."
Fuller echoed those sentiments, noting the ways in which soccer has morphed from a suburban game to a city game in recent years.
"Even when you talk about the desire, when they first announced the Union, everybody really wanted a downtown soccer environment," he said. "You only have to look around Major League Soccer to see the benefit of that… We wanted to be located in the city, and fortunately for us, with the advent of Penn Park, it gives us an opportunity to have a facility that can handle an event of this stature."