Children playing soccer stop and look up to wave at the MARTA trains whirring by overhead.
A miscalculated kick sends a soccer ball soaring right at a small crowd of parents, some of whom jump as the ball hits the net separating the bleachers from the pitch.
A young boy, donning shin guards and cleats, jokes to his dad that he’s caught in the protective netting as he makes his way to the field to join friends.
Such is the scene at the West End MARTA Station on a weekday afternoon, where Atlanta’s Soccer in the Streets organization, the Atlanta United Foundation, and the city’s planning department recently opened the newest “Station Soccer” play fields.
Some West End parents, such as Kimberly Jones, were pleasantly surprised to see brand-new AstroTurf fields built alongside the local transit hub. The idea, after all, isn’t exactly mainstream; the West End project’s predecessor, which opened at MARTA’s Five Points Station in 2016, was heralded as the world’s first soccer facility in a transit station.
“I was very surprised about it, but I think it’s a wonderful thing they’re doing for the kids,” Jones told Curbed Atlanta.
Jones’s son will be 10 years old next month, and were it not for the new Station Soccer location, “He’d be at home, doing nothing,” she said. “Maybe doing homework.”
Sitting next to Jones, Mechanicsville resident Jessyca West watched her 8-year-old son, Joshua, practice with his pals.
“He’s playing with his usual team,” West said. “But they didn’t have a field over here [before].”
Station Soccer’s West End program, which began September 8, is the second of its kind in Atlanta, following the success of the Five Points pitch, which was built on an unused and unsightly section of the station.
But on this side of town, the scene is already more active than its downtown counterpart, according to Fernando Guerena, the Station Soccer operations manager.
“With the success of the Five Points station, one of the greatest challenges has been getting kids down there on weekdays,” he said. “[Downtown] is not in a very residential area.”
“Here in the West End,” he continued, “we’re very much more in a residential community, so you see more young kids playing out here.”
Guerena noted that the Five Points and West End pitches are just the beginning of what could one day be a program that operates at more than a quarter of MARTA’s rail stops.
“We plan on expanding to upwards of 10 stations over the next few years,” he said. “We haven’t determined where the next location will be, but we certainly have certain stops in mind.”
Families are encouraged to register their children for Station Soccer, said Guerena, although, he stressed, “We don’t want that to be a barrier either ... we try to accommodate any and every kid we can.”
For adult players, Guerena said, “It’s more-or-less the same idea, although we do charge $5 for a pickup session for our leagues, which goes back to help pay for operating the Station Soccer facility” in addition to funding Soccer in the Streets’s general programming.
Part of those funds goes toward paying Station Soccer coaches. Although sometimes parents and siblings volunteer to help out, he said, “We want to give young people—college age, early 20s—the opportunity to have real-life jobs [as coaches].”
Guerena appreciates the people who step up to help teach the kids, but he also deems it important to pay coaches who really know the sport.
“We want to actually give these kids a dedicated soccer experience,” he said, “like any other kid paying thousands of dollars to play in any private youth club would be playing.”