Jose Acuna played on bald turf as a Costa Rican kid growing up in the capital, San Jose. When none of the footballers had a ball, a mango pit would do.
A quarter century later, coach Acuna's soccer players use a gym floor instead of a field baked in sunshine. They play four versus four, not the beautiful game's universal 11 on a side.
"When you play soccer, you're not a rich kid. You're not homeless. You're not Muslim. You're not Catholic," Acuna says. "You're just a soccer player.… I think one reason so many play is because it takes you away somehow, an alternative reality. It's like magic, really."
Acuna's Minneapolis team, called Up Top, is made up of players ages 16 to 24 who are homeless. YouthLink, a local nonprofit serving youth, sponsors the club. No less than five countries are represented on the roster, including Mexico, Kenya, and the U.S.
"Soccer, it's love," one of them recently told the coach.
"When you have it in your heart," says Acuna, "and meet somebody else who loves it, you show respect for one another, put the ball down, and let's play."
Acuna's culture of family, team, and work has produced five national Street Soccer USA titles. Next week, Up Top travels to this year's tournament in Philadelphia looking for its sixth trophy in nine years.
"Some people see soccer just as a sport. In Costa Rica, it's more than that. It's passion," says Acuna, whose day job is serving as YouthLink’s outreach manager. "We don't have an army, and for us in Costa Rica the soccer team is the army, going into battle against Italy or England, a David and Goliath type of thing. It's the same it teaches these kids, to never give up."
Acuna knows that his team, facing life struggles of varying degrees, will bust it with abandon as they seek to defend their title next week. But work ethic alone doesn't always carry the day. Soccer is just that way.
Coach believes that if they're destined for higher ground like the teams that came before, it will be so because every player doesn't want to let teammates down.
"They feel like they belong to something," Acuna says. "They feel that for each other."
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