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Originally published Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sounders FC debut kicks off project for aid to African kids

As Seattle's first major-league soccer team debuts Thursday, a new project is fusing the world's game with the region's penchant for global humanitarian work.

Seattle Times reporter

As Seattle's first major-league soccer team debuts Thursday, a new project is fusing the world's game with the region's penchant for global humanitarian work.

If soccer can capture so much of the world's attention, says Cliff McCrath, it can spark connections between fans in Seattle and kids in Africa.

McCrath, a legendary former coach at Seattle Pacific University, has forged a partnership between Seattle's new soccer team and one of the world's largest nonprofits for children.

As Seattle Sounders FC kicks off its first season, the club will help Save the Children raise awareness and money for programs to promote good health among at-risk teens.

Plans for the partnership include two charity fundraising events in July, volunteering opportunities for fans and students, public-service announcements during games and a trip to Africa in the fall for a soccer-training camp with Sounders FC players.

McCrath, 73, says he's driven by a desire to give the kind of help he could have used himself as a foster kid growing up in Detroit.

"My heart beats fastest when we're out there with kids," McCrath said. "If we can do anything to help consolidate the phenomenal gains Save the Children has made by using this great game, they'll find me facedown in the dirt some place trying to stop a kid from scoring on a goal with old cans and bottles."

McCrath and former Microsoft executive Frank Schott launched a Seattle nonprofit called Soccer Saves. They aim to use the culture of sports to help Save the Children and other organizations reach teens with programs for HIV/AIDS education, nutrition, gender equity and birth control in places hit hardest by poverty and disease.

"Soccer is the draw, the sizzle, the smell in the kitchen that allows you to get kids in and begin sending lifesaving messages," said Schott.

For Sounders FC, the partnership supports a good cause that also makes business sense.

"We want to do a lot of good, but certainly we want to raise awareness of our club among young African soccer players," said Gary Wright, senior vice president of business operations.

Getting message out

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Facing a challenging economy and a hard-to-reach population, Save the Children was looking for fresh ways to get its message across.

"For most people, these issues just seem like somebody else's problem," said Charles MacCormack, the organization's president. "My job is to figure out how I can reduce the sense of distance between people who can help and people grappling with the issue on the ground who often feel hopeless."

One of the best models in philanthropy has been the breast-cancer movement, he said, because millions of individuals took control of the issue.

The new partnership has deep roots in the Northwest, where Schott grew up attending summer basketball camp on Whidbey Island. That camp later became Northwest Soccer Camp, which McCrath ran for 38 summers and where he ended up coaching Schott's three kids.

The two helped build a scholarship fund for the camp and then started thinking about bigger things. Schott's work took him frequently to Africa, where he consults for the United Nations and directs global programs for NetHope. The day after McCrath left Seattle Pacific, Schott told him, "Let's do something way bigger than anything you've ever done before."

They knew they wanted to work with Save the Children. McCrath thought of bringing the newly formed Sounders FC into the project. It was a stroke of luck that team owner Joe Roth was on Save the Children's board and liked the idea.

World Cup fever

With the World Cup coming to South Africa next summer, "soccer will be at a fever pitch," McCrath said, and he sees that as a rallying cry.

After all, it was the sport that saved him. McCrath earned the nickname "Uncle Nubby" for the three fingers he blew off as a child. He went on to become one of the most successful college soccer coaches ever, and more than 150 of his former players are coaching and teaching throughout the world.

Sounders FC also supports three local charities, but Sounders VP Wright said the team realized it had to reach more broadly.

"Seattle is an international city, and that's one of the things that's made this launch successful," he said. "We had to stress that it is the world's game, and people have embraced that."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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