Sullivan: $100k grant nets Lackawanna a new soccer mini-pitch

Jerry Sullivan

People with an intimate knowledge of soccer in Western New York have referred to this as a “golden age” for the sport in the City of Lackawanna.

The Lackawanna High School boys team won its first-ever Section VI championship in 2017 and won another two years later. Many of the Steelers have gone on to play college soccer, most notably at Buffalo State.

This year, the Yemen Soccer Club, which has been serving youth and developing players since 1975, formed a semi-pro team called FCY New York, which plays in the United Premier Soccer League. It was a huge step for soccer in the city, further evidence that the sport was booming in the city.

So, it wasn’t surprising when the U.S. Soccer Foundation, in conjunction with Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Independent Health Foundation, chose Lackawanna as the recipient of a $100,000 grant for a youth soccer complex.

Late Monday afternoon, children, families, police officers and city officials — including Mayor Annette Iafallo — gathered at the Victory Playground on South Park Avenue to dedicate the new soccer “mini-pitch” and conduct clinics.

“Through the generosity of these organizations, boys and girls in Lackawanna will now have even more opportunities to enjoy the game of soccer under guidance of skilled volunteer coaches committed to creating an inclusive and fun learning environment,” Iafallo said. 

Brian Lakso, the city’s recreation director and a former police officer, said Lackawanna has been active in the “Soccer For Success” program, a three-year, $5 million U.S. Soccer initiative that is administered locally by the Independent Health Foundation.

“In the summer, I think they saw the response they were getting from the kids in our community,” Lakso said. “When this opportunity came up and the national outfit was looking for a local community to benefit, they immediately thought of us, and we couldn’t be more grateful.

“Soccer already had a foothold in Lackawanna, but the Soccer for Success program has really helped to grow it here,” Lakso said. “If ever I had a no-brainer decision, it was accepting this grant. When you see the faces of all the kids playing and having a good time, how can you not feel good?”

Keith Kwiatkowski concurs. Kwiatkowski, a Lackawanna cop, spends a lot of his time working with kids in the city. It’s part of a community outreach designed to connect police with youth and, as Lakso put it, “break down the barriers.”

“This is a great gift,” Kwiatkowski said. “This is huge for us. We did a ‘learn to play’ program over the summer in different sports. Our police officers came out here and played with the kids.”

Jen Mitri, manager of community initiatives for the Independent Health Foundation, said U.S. Soccer created “Soccer for Success” in 2011 and Independent Health brought it to Western New York a year later. She said Lackawanna’s identity as an avid soccer community made it a natural for the new facility.

“Absolutely,” Mitri said. “We had the opportunity to bring Soccer For Success out to the community and we jumped on it. We started out working with the school district. We’ve been working at Victory Park and Taggart over the last few summers, and it’s been really successful.”

Lakso agreed that any initiative that advances soccer in Lackawanna can help strengthen the bonds with the Yemeni community — which comprises more than one-third of the city’s population. He said he’s been speaking with the Yemen Soccer Club about working together on youth soccer leagues.

“We don’t know where it’s going to go or how quickly it’s going to take hold,” he said. “But this is a discussion that is long overdue. It’s such a melting pot of a community. I know when I grew up, different cultures and backgrounds, when you were on the football field when I was a kid, it didn’t matter. We were just kids playing football, having fun and getting to be friends with each other.

“This is an extension of that mentality. Everybody plays together and bonds. Everything is so splintered today. This helps us solidify that sense of community and bringing everyone together. What could be better than that?”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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