Around the world, soccer is a way of life for millions of kids—a game they start learning from the time they can walk. But in the United States, the pay-to-play model used by the vast majority of clubs makes elite soccer inaccessible to masses of youngsters. That’s something Kaig Lightner wanted to change when he founded Portland Community Football Club.
“Our mission is to get high quality, affordable soccer to all kids in the Portland area,” says Lightner. PCFC is a youth club with a unique model: any kid who wants to play is welcome. Fees for a season range from $30-$100 (compared with costs in the thousands for elite clubs), but no player is ever turned away for lack of funds. Uniforms are free, and the club provides cleats and shinguards to kids who need them. “Anything that might get in the way of kids being able to play good quality soccer in a club,” says Lightner, “we're here to make sure they're not excluded.”
Money and transportation, while prohibitive for many families, aren’t the only barriers. There are also cultural obstacles, including both practical issues like language, and less concrete ones, like the feeling families from minority and immigrant communities might have of simply not fitting in at other clubs.
“If you look at the existing system of soccer clubs in PDX,” says Lightner, “the more elite, premier clubs, the majority have a majority of white, affluent kids... that can cause a whole lot of other issues with kids and families [from other communities] feeling like they can’t connect.”
Much of that cultural barrier goes away simply through making the club accessible and affordable. “There’s an environment of getting to know each other, finding out each others’ stories... The game itself really is what brings cultures together. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you come from two cultures that love soccer.”
The club also has a stated open acceptance policy for LGBT+ players and families. Lightner, who is transgender, made national news earlier this year when he came out to a group of players. “I couldn’t continue to push them so hard and ask so much of them when I felt I was hiding behind something,” he says. “On top of that, somebody they know and trust and respect saying that to them is so much better than hearing negative things about trans people in the media or in their social circles.”
Lightner’s goal with PCFC isn’t merely to be inclusive; he also wants the club to compete at the highest levels of youth soccer. Because of PCFC’s financial policies, all coaches, for now, are unpaid—but rather than settling for parents who don’t know the game, Lightner has made sure to seek out volunteers with at least some coaching experience and, in some cases, USSF coaching licenses.
Access to competition with elite clubs, though, remains out of reach for now. The Oregon Youth Soccer Association, which runs the leagues that the top clubs compete in, charges clubs upwards of $700 each season—a price tag that’s prohibitive for a club that’s also providing uniforms, scholarships, and transportation, while charging families a minimal fee. For the time being, PCFC competes in other leagues. “The pay to play system is difficult to break into,” Lightner says. “It’s got a lot of barriers to it... we're just kind of finding our way.”
If you want to donate or volunteer for PCFC, you can do so via their website. Stumptown Footy’s own Roscoe Myrick also has an upcoming soccer photography show benefiting the club, taking place from 5-8 pm December 13 at Teote’s Coyote Mezcaleria.
[Edited 11/30 2:45 p.m. to clarify that PCFC competes in non-OYSA leagues]