Soccer coach Lusenii Watson has dreams to change the lay of the land in Westside Atlanta – literally. As the neighborhood grows, “Coach Lu” is determined to build a pitch for kids who want to learn how to play what soccer legend Pelé called “the beautiful game.”
Watson is head coach and founder of FirstWorks Soccer Academy, a nonprofit travel club dedicated to teaching kids the fundamentals of soccer. After establishing FCA’s Urban Soccer league with City of Refuge, Waston wanted to engage more kids in the Westside and metro Atlanta. This fall, his two teams will play 10 matches each in different neighborhoods around the city.
“Soccer is not a traditional sport in the communities that we serve, so it takes a lot of effort to work with schools, build relationships with coaches of other soccer teams and provide equipment and resources through partnerships,” Watson said. “But it has been growing by leaps and bounds.”
Growth has come in part by the buzz created around Atlanta United FC. In an effort to inspire, and have a little fun himself, Watson took some of his FirstWorks players to their first soccer game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “I was probably more excited than they were!” Watson said. “They were excited, but they couldn’t beat my excitement for soccer!”
Atlanta United recognized Waston’s passion and nominated him for the team’s Community MVP award. While Watson was not voted MVP by the public, FirstWorks Soccer did receive $1,000 and he got to make the first kick at the Atlanta United vs. Orlando City game in July. “We have gotten so much exposure thanks to Atlanta United. It has been more than I imagined,” he said.
FirstWorks Soccer players also took to the pitch as a nonprofit team invited to play at the Atlanta United training facility in Marietta. They played a doubleheader in April against Soccer in the Streets, winning one game 3-0 and tying 1-1.
Watson’s focus with the young players is what he calls learning the “first works,” hence the name of the organization. Each season, the teams read an inspirational book and then write a one-page essay describing their thoughts on the book. Players are also taken to university games at Emory and Georgia State. Emory runs an annual spring break camp, which exposes the kids to an environment of higher education.
Kids of all ages benefit from the stress relief and strategy of soccer, but Coach Lu has a special eye on soccer players aged 13 to 17 who wish to become referees. FirstWorks Soccer pays for each referee’s registration and uniforms in exchange for reffing 30 games. Not only do they learn more about the game, but they can earn an extra bit of money – as much as $600 each season.
Decoda Curry, a 17-year-old junior at Frederick Douglas High School, has refereed over 100 games and has recently been included in a partner club so he can play in the next age group. “He’s now a leader in the community,” Watson said. “I first met him when he was being labeled as things that you wouldn’t want a 15-year-old to be labeled. Now he sees his future and that he has great things ahead of him.”
As a teen himself, Watson dreamed his future would revolve around soccer. He grew up in Paynesville, Liberia and played soccer in high school where he aspired to play in the competitive league. Instead he came to the United States for college, went to Clark Atlanta University and graduated with an engineering degree. He went on to work at Georgia Power, but left the company last year to start consulting and to focus on FirstWorks Soccer and the field he plans to build on the Westside.
“When I was growing up in Liberia, we walked to where we could play soccer,” Watson recalled. “A field close by will give kids the chance to have the health aspects of working out some of their energy and boredom. My strong, strong desire is to have field in the Westside – not on the outskirts, but where they are.”
FirstWorks has a serious challenge in finding a place to play as the city’s parks and recreation department have reserved most of the fields. FirstWorks currently trains at Maddox Park less than a mile from City of Refuge in Bankhead, yet they often have to go to John F. Kennedy Park for better terrain. Georgia Soccer told Watson that if he can raise $20,000 they will match the cost, and eager “Coach Lu” quickly set up a GoFundMe account.
Watson sees potential in a plot of land City of Refuge has recently acquired. The space would fit a mini pitch, perfect for kids 10 years and under, and provide a training area for older kids.
“Two years ago, the human director [of City of Refuge] and I were on that field praying, saying, ‘Bless us with this property so we can have a soccer field,’” Watson said. “I would love for them to play home games at their own field in the Westside.”
To learn more about FirstWorks Soccer, visit firstworkssoccer.org.