In the Rio Grande School's small, colorful gym, two dozen kids aged 6 to 9 run soccer drills while coaches guide them in a mix of Spanish and English. It's one of the first practices since this fledgling soccer club, Santa Fe United, became official with the New Mexico Youth Soccer Association.
But it's not just any club—it's the city's first nonprofit one that makes playing completely cost-free or almost free for every child.
The lack of options and the high cost of registration fees, uniforms, tournament entries and travel finally drove one Southside dad, Omar Reyes, to create Santa Fe United in September last year. It earned approval as a club and nonprofit at the beginning of the year, officially creating two separate teams called the Strikers.
Santa Fe United was born out of a smaller team that had already been playing together for two years with La Liga, a local league. But when only part of the team could afford to join a club and play in a larger tournament, Reyes decided enough was enough and an affordable option had to be created for more competitive exposure for the kids.
"Some of the clubs here and in Albuquerque charge anywhere from about $300 to about $1,000 for you to play on their teams, and with the Latino community, a lot of parents have one, two or even three kids that they want to play soccer," says Reyes, one of the seven board members and the father of the team captain. "That adds up to $2,000, $3,000. Some of the parents can't afford that kind of money to pay for the kids to play soccer."
Making playing free is an unusual goal in an American soccer club, some of which price out lower-income families. While high schools in the area have soccer teams, elementary and middle schools don't. Kids can play in leagues such as La Liga and the Santa Fe American Youth Soccer Organization and pay less, but they are only able to compete in local games and not in a bigger tournament without joining a club. The Rio Rapids Northern Soccer Club, one of the city's largest, charges $450 per player for the fall season and $330 for the spring season.
Rio Rapids has less tournament-focused teams that are cheaper: $130 for their development program and $95 for their eight-session academy program. Players have to be enrolled in the development program to play in the academy. Rio Rapids also leads free after-school programs at six schools.
The Santa Fe Community Soccer League has been around for a decade and also offers cost-free soccer, according to Mara Taub, the administrative coordinator.
Reyes says another unique aspect of Santa Fe United is that it will accept any child, regardless of whether they have ever even touched a soccer ball before.
Although Reyes says the team has struggled to raise enough money in the last few months, it was able to pay for all 33 kids to play in a tournament in Albuquerque in February—which they won. Parents only had to pay $10 per child.
Other things are looking up for the team as well. In the spring, Santa Fe United will have its own field, thanks to an agreement reached between the club and the school district.
The school district will absorb the costs to restore the abandoned field at the former Milagro Middle School on Zia Road and turn it into a soccer field to use for free. The club will only have to pay the facility use application fees.
Gabe Rippel, a born and raised Santa Fean and the parent of one of the players, says it needs "a lot of work."
The school district tells SFR the field will be ready by the time spring practice begins.
It's something everyone on the team is looking forward to. Reyes says all the players are from the Southside, and until the field is fixed up, parents have to drive half an hour north to practice in the Rio Grande School's tiny gym east of downtown. The new practice spot would be five miles and 15 minutes closer to home.
Santa Fe United has ambitious growth goals. To support the kids playing for free in the long term, the club wants to start an adult team as well. The registration and tournament fees for the adults will go toward making sure the children don't pay. Reyes also hopes the club will grow to 300 players by the end of 2020 and bring in more donations from the community.
Up until now, parents have been "knocking on a lot of doors" for fundraising, but not a lot have been opening, Reyes says. Despite that, the team has reimbursed parents for all expenses they've paid. None of the board members are compensated for their time.
"There's not a single dollar that's been paid other than to a parent as a reimbursement," Rippel says. "It feels good."
The club also had difficulty finding a place to play before Rio Grande offered its gym. All of the schools on the Southside told the club there was no time or space for the Strikers to play in their facilities over the winter.
Santa Fe United is not the only club having a hard time finding a well-maintained place to play—it's a widespread problem, even in a city like Santa Fe with many soccer fans, leagues and players.
The five soccer fields at Santa Fe's Municipal Recreation Sports Complex serve more than 6,000 players, spread over the city's four leagues, plus casual users, schools and soccer clubs, project advocate Pilar Faulkner told SFR in August as the city and county worked together to raise money to improve the fields, which have been in need of repair for some time.
Faulkner told SFR the original timeline for completing the improvements at the complex would be "sometime in early summer, late spring of 2020" and she also hoped there will be four new turf fields built at the MRC on Santa Fe's west side sometime between 2020 and 2022.
Faulkner says that those are still the "target" dates for both projects, especially since the Legislature gave $50,000 to the city specifically for the soccer complex, which would pay the contractor for the improvements.
For more info about Santa Fe United, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: This article has been amended to add more information about Santa Fe's soccer programs.