Leveling the Playing Field
Alumnus Simon Landau’s Open Goal Project aims to give everyone an equal shot at the world’s most popular sport—and beyond.
by Caite Hamilton
With an estimated 250 million players across 200 countries, soccer is the most-played sport in the world. And it’s the world’s most accessible, able to be played at all ages and skill levels and in all kinds of environments, from a dusty field to a parking lot. All you need is a ball. But when it comes to travel soccer—a specific segment of the sport aimed at school-age kids seeking a higher-level experience—Simon Landau, B.A. ’09, says the reality is far less democratic. Through his nonprofit, Open Goal Project, he’s opening up the world of travel soccer to everyone.
Landau grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, an affluent town known for its Ivy League university and not much else. His dad ran Landau, a century-old family business that specialized in Icelandic wool garments, while his mom, a university professor, traveled to teach at various schools across the country. With dual incomes and steady jobs, Landau’s parents could afford babysitters and family vacations and to enroll both of their boys in travel soccer. The older (and, by Landau’s admission, more talented) of the two, Matt, went first, and four years later, when Landau was old enough, he tried out too.
“Soccer was always a kind of integral piece of my life, not just from a sports aspect but much more from a connecting-with-people aspect,” Landau says. “It opened the door to a bunch of different friendships and people who I don't think I would've interacted with otherwise.” Even though Princeton is a small town, there was a sizable Guatemalan population. Many of Landau’s close childhood friends were children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.
“I think those relationships made it clear to me that being a white kid with two parents who had the means to access a college education meant I didn’t face barriers like those friends of mine faced—language-wise, culture-wise and income-wise,” he says.
Landau played with Princeton Soccer Association for seven years, training with coaches who worked at the nearby university and with motivation from teammates he encountered along the way, like Eddie Gaven and Michael Bradley, who, years later, would go pro.
For the uninitiated, travel soccer (traditionally) works like this: Recognizing that your child has talent and interest beyond their rec league or school team, you have them try out (you can’t just sign up) for the local travel soccer team. Once they’re on the team, they travel regionally to compete against other players and, possibly, turn the heads of college recruiters.
Travel soccer offers what rec league and school teams often cannot: experienced coaches with specialized licenses; teammates with equitable levels of talent and ambition; opportunities to be scouted by D1 schools and earn scholarships; the chance to travel and meet fellow competitive players. But all of those perks come at a cost—one that prices many families out.
The greatest barrier to entry is fees. Landau notes that there are monetary demands at every level, from tryouts to uniforms to travel expenses. But for low-income, first-generation or immigrant families, there are even more considerations, like language and technological barriers, which hinder filling out registration forms, as well as difficulty accessing reliable transportation.
“Far too often in soccer, like anything else in life,” Landau says, “society is structured so that the outcomes are going to be dictated by the resources that are at the disposal of those young people.” Young people, he notes, like Ariana Reyes.
Landau met Reyes after he’d graduated from GW. He was volunteer coaching and playing pickup games at a field near his house in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood when he noticed a few kids juggling in the corner. The children of his fellow players, the kids were no more than 10 or 11 years old but were “far more talented than I was when I was their age.” Reyes in particular, he noticed, was “juggling in the corner of the field, doing all of this stuff with the ball that just was not normal for a 9-year-old.”
“But [these kids] clearly didn’t have the structure and outlet—like travel soccer—that I knew they were talented enough for,” Landau says. “These were kids who certainly deserved that opportunity, but for a variety of reasons, didn’t have the accessibility.”
Reyes remembers spending weekends at the field while her dad played soccer with Landau. “We would always either watch them play or if there were other kids around—it didn’t matter the age—we would hop in and create our own little scrimmages with goals that were either shoes or gates or literally anything,” Reyes says.
She loved the game of soccer (in that pure shoes-as-goals kind of way), having played it practically since she could stand, and she was obviously talented, but when Landau started asking around to see where Reyes played, he came up short. She was participating in an after-school soccer program called DC Scores, for which Landau was volunteering at a different location, but she’d never tried out for travel soccer. She didn’t even know what it was.
“I started searching for tryout opportunities for her and started to see the different barriers that young kids or families like hers faced—kids who had all the talent in the world but obstacles that were standing between her and accessing this travel soccer experience that I had—and the way the overall system of youth soccer had been set up that inherently excludes kids like her—kids from immigrant families, Black and brown kids who don't have the resources,” Landau says. The seeds of the Open Goal Project had been planted.
At first Landau was fundraising simply for Reyes’ try-out fees, but soon he was introduced to former Major League Soccer player and D.C. native Amir Lowery, who had been doing similar work in the area, and together, they scaled their efforts to support a dozen more low-income student athletes on travel teams.
“Over time, we saw how expensive and how inaccessible the system is to kids from this population,” Landau says. Instead of trying to place the kids on other travel soccer teams and sponsor them—trying to fit them into a system that was continually shutting them out—they rebuilt the system.
Launched in 2015, Open Goal Project provides the umbrella for a multi-tentacled organization. The core program, District of Columbia Football Club (DCFC), comprises four free-to-play travel soccer teams (three boys’ teams and one girls’ team) for kids ages 7 to 17, each with three practices a week and games on the weekends, with bilingual coaches and sessions held within walking distance of public transportation. This fall, DCFC has added a fifth group for girls under the age of 10. The nonprofit also offers a free summer camp and a fitness and nutrition program.
“When we started doing this, Amir and I used the term ‘peeling back the onion,’ because until we were really into it, we were like, ‘Oh, this is an issue. This is an issue,’” Landau says. They’ve adjusted (and re-adjusted) their program based on the needs of the kids they serve—with plenty of input from the players themselves, including Reyes.
“It was really more like trial and error,” Reyes says. “They were always so upfront with me and asked me what I thought worked or what didn’t work and how I felt about things.” The founders’ willingness to listen to the players has not only helped expand the program but also make it more successful. In addition to its founders and a support staff, Open Goal employs what Landau calls several “youth staffers”—college-age kids who look and sound like a lot of the younger program participants—who he says the kids wouldn’t have access to on a larger scale in a traditional travel soccer setting but are crucial for feeling inspired and connected.
Daniel Callejas, whose two boys, Ramsés, 15, and Mateo, 13, have participated in both traditional travel teams and DCFC’s program, says Open Goal has been invaluable. For Ramsés, who wanted to explore which position best suited him, DCFC provided the space to explore and eventually turned him into a strong left back.
Mateo is “100 percent devoted to soccer,” his dad says. The teen plays for a traditional D.C. travel team but wanted extra time on the field and more training, which his dad can’t afford. He tried out for DCFC, made the cut and utilized its regular practice sessions and summer camps. He participates in Open Goal Project’s enrichment programs, summer camps, and open sessions for extra practice.
“In travel you have to have some degree of talent prior to being accepted to the club,” Callejas says. “Having money isn’t always enough, although it becomes a major factor later. Club fees, uniforms, trips, private sessions, summer sessions, sporting gear/equipment are all yearly expenses that most cannot afford. These are all things that families in DCFC do not have to worry or stress about.”
It’s all part of Open Goal’s “holistic approach.” Unlike traditional travel soccer teams, where families can (and will) pay for extra training and nutrition consults or where the teams may lead a one-off workshop and bring in a guest speaker, DCFC and Open Goal regularly provides those services in-house—and then some—as part of its off-the-field programming.
While peeling back the onion, Landau and Lowery realized there were other ways the kids they served needed to play catchup beyond entry fees and transportation. There were real-life skills that, without learning, would set them back even further.
They launched a fitness program, for example, that focuses on exercise that doesn’t require traditional gym equipment. They brought in a partner organization to host sessions on goal setting, making budgets and time management. With 80 percent of their participants coming from families where they would be the first generation to attend college, the founders created a program focused on financial aid and college access. And they regularly invite program graduates who are now attending college (like Reyes) to hold sessions for the kids too.
“We have a number of families where the parents … maybe they had an eighth-grade education or high school education, and the kids have not had that perspective brought to them,” Landau says. “We try to weave in elements that help them understand the value of accessing higher education.”
Of course, it isn’t just the programming that helps accomplish these goals. It’s the connection Landau and Lowery—and the 10-plus-person team at Open Goal—establishes with its players.
“It was always Simon with me, working on SATs and working on sending and responding to college coaches’ emails,” Reyes says. “Simon and the organization were also the only ones to help me apply to colleges.”
In 2020, Reyes was accepted to James Madison University, where she’s studying hospitality. She starts at left forward on the D1 school’s soccer team, an accomplishment for which she credits Open Goal.
“If I were to think back on when we first started, I remember being really shy and quiet at my first ever tryout with a travel team,” Reyes says. “[Simon] was always comforting me and helping me understand that what I was doing then was all going to pay off in the future. It would allow me to connect with a certain class of people who I never connected with back at school or in my area as a low-income Hispanic girl.”
Landau sees Reyes’ admission into JMU as proof that the travel soccer program he and Lowery (and Reyes herself) have built can be successful, but he maintains that he’s never seen the work he’s doing as strictly a “soccer issue.”
“This is a social and racial equity issue that is manifested in the form of youth soccer in this country,” he says. “It’s something we’re trying to address at every point.” In other words, Open Goal just wants to even the playing field.
Landau: William Atkins; other photos courtesy of Simon Landau