Group of men, playing soccer outdoors on the urban field, greeting before the game. (via South_agency on iStock)

Even before the pandemic, participation in organized sports, and soccer in particular, had dwindled in the United States. Yet the practice of soccer among immigrants, especially those from the Global South, seems to keep growing. In the last decade, while immigrants faced massive deportations and stigmatization, soccer has helped them create useful ties to their communities and a sense of belonging in the United States. 

“When you leave another country, your old ways of being become broken, destabilized, and you get a feeling of dislocation,” said David Trouille, professor of sociology at James Madison University in Virginia and author of the book Futbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer and the Creation of Social Ties (University of Chicago Press, 2021). “[For immigrants] soccer became a basis for performing social relationships, and also of reclaiming a sense of selves.”  

That allure has helped maintain soccer’s popularity among immigrants even though the sport has decreased in popularity in the United States as a whole. With the onset of the pandemic, team sports in general, which do not allow social distancing, struggled to maintain participation, partly as a consequence of school and park closures. However, soccer games and tournaments organized by immigrants in public fields saw little decline. 

“My sense is that at the adult level, the amateur Latino leagues are very much thriving,” said Trouille. “Where I am from [Virginia], once the COVID-19 restrictions started to lessen, there was a tremendous thirst and desire to get back on the soccer field.”

Informal soccer tournaments in the United States are practiced mainly by men from Latin America, where soccer is the most popular sport; its popularity is also increasing among immigrants from Africa. But for these immigrants, the sport is much more than just fun. Taking part in soccer games has helped immigrants expand their social ties in the workplace, churches, and neighborhoods—necessary for newcomers to integrate into the United States. The informal games of the sport create a welcoming environment, said Trouille, especially valuable for immigrants of color and undocumented immigrants. 

“Soccer becomes a place where immigrants can enrich themselves, where they can be somebody,” he said.

Chango (a nickname used to protect his identity and immigration status) started working in his late twenties as an independent house painter. By his early thirties, he was established as a reliable contractor and frequently needed additional workers. Chango recruited among the people he knew—often other players at the pick-up games at the Mar Vista Park in West Los Angeles. As documented in Trouille’s book, Titi (a nickname), was recommended for paint jobs with Chango by former and current teammates at those games. 

As a worldwide sport, soccer provides an opportunity to help ease pressures for people in challenging environments. In the United States, the nonprofit Street Soccer USA runs programs in 14 cities for children and teens, as well as for homeless families, adults, and people in recovery. Focusing on the 33% of youth living below the poverty line, with high school graduation rates close to 60%, the organization uses the grassroots capacity of soccer to promote life skills. In the adult programs, 75% of the participants connect to housing, employment, further education, or enroll in another rehabilitation program within a year of playing. 

Other organizations operate solely in one city. The Starfinder Foundation tends to residents in low-income communities across Greater Philadelphia that see a 60% lower participation rate in organized sports than middle-income families. Its programs help children, teens, and adults—a diverse cohort who jointly speak over 25 different languages—to cultivate physical skills and discipline while offering academic guidance. The outcomes are remarkable. In a city where 34% of public school students fail to graduate from high school on time, the graduation rates of the regularly-attending participants of the Starfinder programs is close to 100%. 

The South Bronx United, a nonprofit offering academic and immigration legal services, helps the younger people of color and immigrants build networks of support. It also operates a soccer program that’s seen similar successes in one the most economically disadvantaged areas in New York City. Roughly 70% percent of the students at the club are Latinx or Latin Americans, most from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Ecuador, and 30% are Black Americans or immigrants with West African backgrounds, mainly from Ghana, Ivory Coast, and the Gambia.

Yadiel Vargas credits his time at the club for “helping [him] believe in [him]self.” In 2017, Vargas arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic. He was 12 and did not know any English. While Vargas didn’t make South Bronx United competitive teams on his first try, he succeeded the following year after improving his “team-first mentality.” He played as a goalkeeper, and despite his initial lack of experience, he eventually grew confident in the position.

“Soccer is a beautiful tool to reach populations that we could not otherwise reach, or that would be very difficult to reach,” said Joshua Guerra, spokesperson for South Bronx United. The outreach effort has paid-off. 

Since 2012, the four-year high school matriculation rate has been 93% for the students that participate in the soccer programs, compared to 56% in the South Bronx, according to the club. 56% of the club’s students earn a Bachelor’s degree compared to 11% in the South Bronx. One of the South Bronx United programs, the Global Youth League, open to all teens from the Bronx and northern Manhattan, focuses on immigrants and unaccompanied minors. Approximately 150 high school girls and boys participate in the league, whose games are played on Saturdays in three South Bronx fields.

“In terms of building community, what we allow for in the context of the Global Youth League is for athletes just to encounter others without any other pretense [than to play soccer],” Guerra said. “That helps to integrate folks who might otherwise not be in touch with each other.” That sense of community keeps attracting immigrants. 

The participation in the South Bronx United soccer teams has grown—as in the case of informal sports activity and, seemingly, Latinx immigrants’ soccer games—even when the national trends signal that interest in organized sports in the United States has decreased. 

“Oftentimes, one of our biggest struggles year after year is eliminating the waitlist for our recreational soccer programs,” said Guerra.

The popularity of these programs may reveal the relevance of soccer for communities of color in the United States—often stigmatized, exploited in their workplaces, or escaping from traumatic pasts. As it happens all over the Global South, the games provide immigrants in the United States with social ties, positive activity, and hope.

Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City who covers immigration, social justice issues, Latin America, and the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter at @mauriziogro.