By Andrea Kjaer
London has King’s Cross, NYC has Grand Central, and Atlanta has Five Points. Now, thanks to Sanjay Patel, Five Points is more than just a station: It’s home to Station Soccer.
Patel, pictured above, moved to Atlanta 17 years ago. On a trip home to London in 2013, he took a routine train ride to his sister’s house. However, he was surprised to find the railcar packed with kids in soccer gear. At his stop, the players disembarked and flocked to a soccer field across the way.
Patel’s curiosity led him to follow the players and speak to the people operating the field. “They told me they’d just opened, but the youth leagues were already full,” he recalls. “They said that even adults were using [the field]. Men and women would come to the fields straight after work, change clothes, play, then socialize over a beer. They have technology to record the game they just played, so they’d watch it, and go home.”
Patel wanted to bring something similar to Atlanta. Inspired by his ongoing work with Soccer in the Streets, a local nonprofit that uses soccer to benefit underserved youth, he knew that transportation to and from practice fields is often a substantial barrier for kids interested in playing the sport.
When he saw empty parking lots attached to a MARTA station, his idea was born.
“I imagined a league built around transit stations,” Patel said. “Kids and adults could practice at their own community station, then jump on the train and play one another on game days.”
The project took two and a half years of planning before turf finally hit the concrete.
First, it required permission and cooperation from MARTA itself. Leadership was keen on the idea, but they had one large question: Where had this been done before?
Patel couldn’t find any examples, so federal transit authorities did some research. They even contacted the Guinness Book of World Records.
Quickly, the answer became clear: There were no sports fields built within transit stations anywhere in the world.
Despite the lack of precedent, MARTA agreed to let Soccer in the Streets build one field at one station—chosen by Patel—as a pilot project.
Patel set his sights on Five Points. As a major transit hub in the heart of Atlanta, the station already had a unique feature—a large amphitheater built on the roof.
Before building the field, the concrete needed to be completely leveled, and whatever material was used to fill in the imperfections would have to withstand Atlanta’s substantial rainfall.
Patel founded a partnership with a company called Ecocept, which makes a synthetic base composed of mostly recycled materials. The mix of plastic and rubber drains excess water, stabilizes the field and provides shock absorbency for the players.
As Station Soccer gathered momentum, Sanjay found more and more people who wanted to be involved, notably Arthur Blank, the owner of the upcoming Major League Soccer team in Atlanta. Aside from the more predictable turf and sports equipment partners, Patel has also been in touch with Tiny House pioneer Will Johnston.
“There is a space the size of a shipping container next to the field,” Patel said. “I want it to be a classroom for kids to do their homework, connect with other kids over the sport or receive education about health and sports-related issues.”
Station Soccer will soon open for spring registration, but the program has already made a difference in the lives of local kids. Several students from Cristo Rey High School have received internships through Soccer in the Streets, and they assisted in the process of getting Station Soccer off the ground.
“All youth who play at Station Soccer will play for free,” assured Patel. “We use the fees assessed from the adult leagues to subsidize the costs. It’s a way of giving back to the younger generation who might not have as many resources.
“Station Soccer gives adults a fun place to meet and gives kids an opportunity to see how developing their talents and working hard are the keys to a successful future.”
All images courtesy of Soccer in the Streets.