When Yacouba Bamba first touched a soccer ball at the age of six at SA Harlem 1, he didn’t yet have dreams of making it big as a soccer player. He certainly didn’t think he’d one day be signed by the New York Red Bulls to play for their U15 academy team. Yacouba, now a freshman at HSLA—Harlem, played his first game with the development team in April, representing the Red Bulls in the Generation Adidas Cup in Dallas.
The son of two African immigrants, Yacouba’s cousins were basketball players, so he dreamt of one day playing in the NBA. But after joining the Success Academy soccer program in first grade, his mindset shifted to soccer. His team broke ground as the first public school to ever compete in the Mediterranean International Cup in 2019. That group of scholars, some of whom are now at HSLA—HA, are finishing up their freshman year and still playing together. Recently, during tournaments in Boston and Atlantic City, the SA network teams took on developmental teams from top programs in the country, including that of the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union, a Major League Soccer club.
The Success Academy soccer program was launched with the lofty goal of reshaping America’s pay-to-play model, a model that unjustly excludes kids and families who can’t afford the steep fees to access the game. SA’s soccer program founder, Boris Bozic, started at SA Harlem 1 with 125 kids, some of whom, like Yacouba, had never played soccer before. Others had never played sports of any kind.
“At first, I thought it was a joke,” Yacouba said, about Bozic’s desire for him to play on the after-school soccer team. “I tried it out. I was like okay, this guy actually cares about me. So I’m going to take this more seriously, and I just got better at it.”
Today, the soccer program reaches nearly 7,000 scholars across the SA network. It has brought teams to tournaments across the country, made history in Europe, and provided countless opportunities for kids across New York City to play a sport they otherwise never would’ve been able to.
While Yacouba has always been naturally skilled and athletic, his success in the classroom hasn’t been as easy. He was disengaged with schoolwork in elementary and middle school, leading his grades to suffer and landing him in detention. Whenever he’d struggle, Bozic, Bradley Williams (the current SA manager of soccer), or another soccer coach would be right there to support him and help him get back on track. But in seventh grade, his grades were at their worst, and he was told he may be held back instead of advancing to eighth grade.
That moment sticks in Yacouba’s mind because it was the first time he’d ever seen his mom angry. Faced with the choice to either let down the friends, family, and coaches that had been supporting him and jeopardize his budding soccer career or put his head down and focus on schoolwork, the decision was easy.
Thanks to Yacouba’s hard work and the support of his family and school staff, Yacouba’s grades and social skills have greatly improved. During a conversation with Dean of Students Ronda Ramos at the beginning of the year, Yacouba realized how important it is to not only be on top of his schoolwork but to be a leader in school as well. He is now a member of the Council of Scholar Affairs (COSA), and his grades have stayed high as he has begun to juggle playing with the Red Bulls. Once a timid freshman, his maturity has taken off.
“To see him now talk to different people and have conversations outside of the soccer team is amazing,” Ramos said. ”It gave him this added boost and sense of belonging, which I think was really the driving point of his growth not only academically, but socially and mentally.”
Today, Yacouba divides his time between practicing with the Red Bulls and focusing on his studies at HSLA-HA. That includes multiple trips a week to New Jersey to practice at the Red Bulls’ facilities in Whippany; usually, Yacouba’s dad closes his business to drive him.
“If my dad’s willing to hold off work just to make sure I’m going in and out of practice he’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this,” Yacouba said. “He and my mom, they’ve done a lot to make sure that I’ve gone to practice, gone to games, and me making it will make them very happy. So I want to do that for them.”
Already equipped with the physical gifts necessary to be successful at higher levels, Yacouba has been able to practice and experience the time management skills at SA that he’ll need later on in his career. His future is bright and he has a long way to go to achieve his ultimate dream of becoming the best soccer player in the world, but with how far he’s come already, no one is doubting him.
“The fact that the program has been able to take this boy, who would likely have never touched a soccer ball, to a point where he is now considered one of the best in the country at his age, is unbelievable,” Williams said. “And to see it all in action — to see a little kid in his Success Academy school uniform, to a young man wearing a Red Bulls jersey, and say that is the same kid, is, well, just incredible.”