Their tentative steps in the beautiful game took place in decidedly less than beatific surroundings.
For many of the kids who make up the youth soccer club Vickery United, the initial staging grounds for their embrace of soccer were refugee camps, where they often led fraught, itinerant lives.
Which makes their passage into the more middle-class ranks of youth soccer for boys in Plano, a suburb north of Dallas, all the more remarkable.
They stand out for another compelling reason: The team is coached by the professional soccer playing duo – and married couple – of Casey and Zach Loyd, both of whom have represented the United States at the national team level, Casey for the women’s side and Zach for the men’s.
Their participation is driven in part by their Christian faith but also borne of a desire to help out in a less fortunate community.
“We love kids,” explains Zach, also a key defender for the Major League Soccer team FC Dallas. “We thought, ‘How can we use soccer to help impact kids’ lives and help out in the community?’ ”
Through their church, they found Danny Domingo, a man ministering in deprived Vickery Meadow in north Dallas.
It all started with the curiosity and faith of this one man. Mr. Domingo, of Filipino descent, was looking for a way to reach out in his local community, an underprivileged area known for its high refugee population.
He had noticed children of myriad ethnic backgrounds often unable to communicate in the same tongue – Burmese, Liberian, Nepalese, Iraqi – but united by a common love of and aptitude for soccer.
Domingo hit upon an opportunity for more organized play, perceiving potentially far-reaching benefits. He could help ward vulnerable young people away from the vices that inevitably come the way of youths in poor neighborhoods like Vickery Meadow, he thought. The players would also have the opportunity to escape the pressures of often difficult home lives. If he could also introduce them to the Christian faith, too, then all the better.
Bearing no soccer knowledge of his own, he nevertheless spotted a chance to bring the youngsters together. He started out by developing informal football matches solely among the kids in the Vickery Meadow community. That progressed to a recreational league against children from other parts of the Dallas area. And with the intervention of the Loyds, to a much higher level of youth club soccer in Plano.
“Danny didn’t even know we played soccer at first,” says Zach, laughing. “He said, ‘Can you guys come out and help with a practice?’ After we were done, he was like, ‘You guys kind of know what you’re doing.’ We said, ‘Yes, we both play professionally.’ He said, “Oh.” That’s when it all started.”
Vickery United is run through Domingo’s Love Is Ministry, which also tries to help refugee families by offering such services as English classes, tutoring, and acclimatization. It recently also started a soccer program for girls.
Early on the Loyds used any piece of open grass they could find as a soccer field. As they tried to instil ideas of respect and discipline into the youngsters, their numbers began to swell. That’s when the Loyds decided they had the potential to form a club: The unusual teams of refugee children known as Vickery United were born.
The news media spotlight fell on Vickery Meadow in 2014 when the tragic death from Ebola of a Liberian man set the tone for a period of unfortunate, often negative attention on this international enclave.
The neighborhood has long been known as hospitable to refugees, attracting the moniker of a mini-United Nations. In fact, Domingo says, one of the players in Vickery United is a member of the family at the center of the Ebola scare.
Domingo and the Loyds operate a bare bones operation, relying on donations. When they first started out, many of the kids did not own a pair of cleats. They needed jerseys, and practice bibs. Zach’s club FC Dallas is among the organizations who have chipped in. Former teammates of Casey on the US women’s national team have also lent a hand.
“This is open to everyone in the area, especially the refugee kids,” Domingo says. “They would not have any chance at all to get into soccer clubs if there was no program like this, if there was no ministry like this.”
• Learn more at http://www.loveisvickeryministry.org/