Success Academy Charter Schools, which has won praise for its students’ academic achievements, has quietly launched a soccer program after recruiting a coach from one of Manhattan’s most successful youth teams.
The timing is delicious: With New York City FC making its Major League Soccer debut on March 15 at Yankee Stadium — and, in the process, becoming the latest professional team in the Tri-State region (joining the Red Bulls and their newly established USL Pro squad, Red Bulls II, as well as the New York Cosmos) — fútbol is having its latest moment in New York. Success Academy is hoping for the same high level of success on the soccer field as it gets in the classroom.
Which might make Eva Moskowitz the most important soccer mom in the city.
“I love soccer because it involves incredible skill and fitness,” says Moskowitz, the former member of New York City Council who later became founder and CEO of the nine-year-old chain of charter schools. “My own kids play and love soccer. I am a soccer mom in all senses of the word. On the weekend I shuttle my own kids and their friends from chess tourneys to debate and basketball practice and rehearsals.”
For Success Academy, soccer is just one more way to develop students’ talents, she tells the Voice.
“We want to give scholars every opportunity to develop their talent, whether that’s math or science or soccer — or all of the above,” Moskowitz says.
It helps that NYC FC, part of the City Football Group’s global soccer portfolio, has announced it will partner with eight youth clubs across the city, instead of building out its own youth organization. Traditionally, youth teams are assembled and managed directly by the club, with the goal of funneling the best players to the first team. Currently, only elementary-aged Success Academy students receive soccer training. A rep for Moskowitz says she had no idea NYC FC was arriving in New York when she got the ball rolling on a soccer program.
The foundation of Moskowitz’s soccer initiative is Boris Bozic, hired in 2014 to run the Success Academy program. Bozic played club soccer in his native Serbia for OFK Belgrade‘s youth team and the then-Yugoslavia’s under-17s. He parlayed his talent for education, landing in Chicago in 2005, where he helped Judson College to fifth in the national rankings and to the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) nationals. He transferred to play in the NCAA Division 1 for Monmouth University’s team, which brought him to New Jersey.
“That was a very successful year for the team, but not for me — I was injured,” he recalls. “I also realized then that soccer here was not at the level I anticipated. I transferred to Rutgers business school and decided to focus on my education.”
But his involvement in soccer continued — in Chicago he had begun coaching youths in summer sports programs. When he moved to the city after graduation, he became head coach for Manhattan Kickers FC, a youth program that plays at Pier 40, where Houston Street meets the West Side Highway. The director of that club at the time was also CFO of Success Academy — and a few conversations ultimately led him to Harlem, where he met Moskowitz.
“She said she wanted a world-class soccer program,” he says. “And she asked me, ‘How can we take this to the next level?’ It started from there.”
“Boris’s vision to create a world-class soccer program for our scholars fits perfectly with our overall school design and mission,” Moskowitz says. “What he has done is amazing. The scholars love him, the parents love him, I love him. He is developing an extraordinary program for our kids.”
The first thing one notices about Bozic is the magnetic pull he has on the kids he coaches. With the Manhattan Kickers, he had a Santa Claus–like magic about him. His players adored him, and he them. The kids still thrill when he drops in to watch games or practices.
Success Academy currently has about 1,200 students enrolled across six of its elementary schools — of these, Bozic says about 200 are chosen for the after-school soccer club. Bozic oversees three coaches who work across all six of the schools, providing training to all students one day every week. Students in the club train two or three times each week.
Next year, the Success Academy expects to expand to twelve elementary schools for grades one through three. School officials hope to boost enrollment to about 2,500 students, which would likely more than double the number of participants in the soccer club. Bozic says his coaching staff will grow to nine after the expansion.
“We have the [goal] to promote and expose soccer to families [as well],” he says. “They play a big role in the process of development, and it is as crucial that they get to experience the game as well.”
At the Success Academy, Bozic is implementing a European-style approach that emphasizes training over competition. He is convinced that one of the biggest reasons the United States has not produced many great soccer players is because of its emphasis on winning games rather than developing skill. To that end, he says he doesn’t plan on scheduling any competitive games for his kids for at least three years.
“Young kids should not engage in competition until they’re ready to do so,” Bozic says. “Until fourth grade they should not play any real games. The only competition should be with themselves, mastering technical skills. They need to learn the fundamentals and good habits.”
But, he concludes, the primary reason a country the size of the U.S. produces a fraction of the continent’s world-class players is economic access to good soccer training — and that’s where Success Academy comes in.
“[The] biggest culprit is the pay-for-play model in the U.S. that restricts access to top-quality soccer programs to the few who can afford it, making it extremely difficult for disadvantaged children to ever become great players.”
Bozic is just as passionate about the adverse effect the cost of playing soccer has had on the sport in America. He says in most countries, soccer is considered a “poor people’s sport,” whereas here, it’s typically played only by those who can afford it.
“Everywhere else in the world, the older you get, the cheaper…it gets,” he tells the Voice in an email. “Whereas here, the older you get, the more expensive it becomes. This constraint excludes the majority of those who might thrive in soccer, but don’t have the means to do it. It is a crime against our game.”
As any soccer parent in New York City can attest, the sport carries with it significant costs — soccer is popular here, but good coaching and competitive play can be expensive.
The biggest challenge the Success Academy faces is a lack of soccer experience — almost all of the children participating in the program have never played before, Bozic says. But it also has faced a challenge that will not surprise anyone familiar with youth soccer in the city — nor anyone following the political fights Moskowitz has waged with City Hall since Bloomberg left: access to space.
“We practice anywhere we can — in cafeterias, hallways, even on the auditorium stage,” Bozic said.