Mott Haven native inspires soccer venue

Fausto Perez, who plays soccer at Hunter College, lives right across the street from a play space known as “La Canchita” or “The Pitch” on the grounds of PS 49 in Mott Haven. Now that space has been remodeled and named for Perez.

Young soccer players help inaugurate a new pitch at PS 49. Photo: Ryan Kelley

All-day tournament features local youth talent on new pitch

When Fausto Perez walked onto the light blue, concrete surface of the mini soccer pitch behind PS 49, he was met with a rousing ovation from the crowd, many of them familiar faces.

Perez, a Mott Haven native and alumnus of PS 49 who grew up playing soccer here, was the inspiration for the event. The 23-year-old lives right across the street from the pitch on East 139th Street, which has been dubbed “La Canchita,”—-the Spanish word for a soccer pitch—-and has been playing there all his life. He remembers when the goals were spray-painted lines on the surrounding walls. That all changed last year, however, when Major League Soccer got involved.<!–more–>

Spectators crowded around the pitch outside the school under a sweltering sun all afternoon on Sunday, July 13, to see the first-ever local street soccer festival co-hosted by the New York City Football Club and the United Arab Emirates Consulate General. The game was sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council.

“We all coexist, and we’re all supposed to learn how to appreciate one another,” said Perez. “We’re showing the community that they’re important and that they’re included.”

To celebrate the league’s 20th anniversary, MLS Works started an initiative to build 20 new mini-pitches in underserved areas of each of its team’s cities. NYCFC claims the Bronx because it plays its home games at Yankee Stadium. The club’s logo is painted in the middle of the new court. When the franchise was done creating the new pitch in October 2016, it asked Perez to go check it out.

Though he didn’t know what the NYCFC was at the time, he was thrilled, having long dreamed to see a new pitch on the school ground. When he arrived to see the new public play space he had inspired, the NYCFC’s director of community development, Paul Jeffries, was there to greet him.

“I was really inspired by him, and I saw the values he was trying to instill in the younger people through soccer and street soccer,”  Jeffries recalled. “We stayed in touch and wanted to create this event that truly reflected the community.”

Now Perez would like to see soccer open up new avenues for neighborhood youth the same way it did for him.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, Perez went on to study at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, but failed to make the soccer team. So he continued to practice at “La Canchita” to refine his skills, made the team the following year and was named a team captain. He now plays for Hunter College, while dual-majoring in human biology and sociology.

Perez and Jeffries’ idea eventually came to fruition, and it was a score for Mott Haven. The Saturday event included a five-on-five round-robin tournament with U-14 and younger, and U-15 and older divisions.

After neighborhood kids had their time honing their game, a few “celebrity” teams got their turn to kick the ball around, including the NYPD, FDNY, parks department, the Mayor’s Office, NYCFC employees, and a local all-star team—-featuring Fausto Perez.

Despite the searing sun, local kids competing in the games never left “la canchita.” Friends cheered each other on along jam-packed sidelines, and awed at the skills they were observing. When the winners of the U-15 and older division held up their trophy and invited the crowd to join for a group photo, the symbolism hit home.

“I like the vibe, it’s good energy; it’s fast paced, and it shows what New York is all about,” said Perez of the event his perseverance had inspired.