This was Chris Canetti's idea. This is Marcus Tracy's hometown.
The idea was to bring the beautiful game to a place where, for a day, ugliness knew no bounds. And while no game could ever undo the 26 senseless murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, nearly 50 stars of American soccer did their best Monday to put smiles on the faces of the children and the parents of those children who push on from one of the worst tragedies in our nation's history.
If the number of stars from Major League Soccer and the U.S. men's and women national teams and the number of joyful smiles that lit up this early January night are used to quantify that mission, Soccer Night in Newtown was a grand success.
Landon Donovan was at the Newtown Youth Academy Sports & Fitness Center. Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas were there. Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm and Christie Rampone were there. More than 30 other MLS stars were there, too.
They signed autographs for more than 1,000 Newtown kids and their families over two sessions. They broke down into soccer games. There were giant inflatables to romp in. Bob Ley, host of ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and one of America's premier sports journalists, was the master of ceremonies. It was fitting, because this was one of the great collections of American soccer players ever assembled in one place.
"Maybe the greatest of all time," Canetti said.
For Tracy, now playing for the San Jose Earthquakes, this was especially emotional.
"Growing up here and having lived 18 years of my life here, I was deeply impacted by it," Tracy said. "Obviously nothing like the families that suffered such great loss.
"This is my town. This is my home. Newtown is and always has been a soccer town. It's great to see the response of the U.S. soccer community. And it's important to see people out here, getting the young kids out here and show them a good time again. Sort of restore that sense of normalcy and see them smile and run around and laugh."
The idea started with Canetti, president of the Houston Dynamo. He grew up in Guilford. He went to Quinnipiac.
"I'm no different than any other American who on the weekend of the tragedy sat around my house terribly saddened and shocked," Canetti said. "I just kept wondering, 'What can we do?' On a whim that next Monday morning driving into work I picked up my cellphone and called Eric Da Costa."
Da Costa is the head coach at Quinnipiac, and Canetti had a question.
"One simple question," Canetti said. "Tell me what type of soccer town Newtown is. I had lost touch. He told me it's a huge soccer town. Big club there, good high school programs, boys and girls, and a facility. I said, well, we should do something. You're grass roots. You're tied to the Connecticut communities. I'm with the pros."
Da Costa told Canetti, "Let's do it."
Da Costa reached out to the Connecticut Football Club, which secured the Newtown facility for the night and sent over a bunch of coaches.
The initial idea was to hold a clinic. Canetti called up a number of his Dynamo players about coming to Newtown. Brian Ching, Brad Davis, Ricardo Clark, Corey Ashe and Tally Hall …
"They all said the same thing," Canettii said. "Yes, yes, yes."
After looking into it more, Canetti and others realized a clinic was not going to impact enough people.
"We might have had 20 kids here, 20 there, it wasn't big enough," Canetti said.
So they decided on a fanfest.
"Word kind of trickled out on social media that it was happening," Canetti said. "One thing led to another that led to another. Alexi Lalas called me, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, they said they wanted to help. We said come on down."
MLS Commissioner Don Garber called and said he wanted the league to help. The ball was rolling big time now. Players from all the MLS teams volunteered.
"We never imagined it growing this big," Canetti said. "I wish we could have been even bigger."
The facility wasn't large enough to handle more. There are fire codes, etc. Organizers even had to turn some players and residents away. The registration number was capped.
"We've made a commitment to come back," Canetti said. "We're not one and done. We want to do something again in the spring when the snow is melted."
There is something both sad and moving that Tracy was only three miles away from Sandy Hook Elementary when a madman walked into the school and destroyed such precious innocence. Tracy did not attend Sandy Hook as a youngster, but his mom had taught there. He was visiting his family during the MLS offseason.
"I had just come downstairs and was in the kitchen cooking breakfast," Tracy, 26, said. "My mom said there was a shooting in Newtown. Immediately I went over to the couch and started to follow what was going on on CNN. There was shock. There was disbelief.
"It has been emotional. I looked at some of these kids who are the same age as the victims in the tragedy. It's still shocking. It's unbelievable when you stop and think about it."
Tracy, who went to Hawley School in Newtown, went on to become the 2004 Courant state player of the year from Newtown High. At Wake Forest, he played on the NCAA champions. He won the Hermann Trophy as the NCAA's best performer.
"Marcus was the clear-cut No. 1 pick out of college in 2008," Canetti said. "The word on the street was don't draft him because he's going to play in Europe. So nobody did. We had just won the championship in 2007. So we took the best player in the draft with the last pick in the last round. He went to Europe and we lost his rights.
"When we started this, it's ironic, I didn't even know Marcus was from Newtown," Canetti said.
He does now.
"When they contacted me," Tracy said, "I had to be here. I had to show my face. I had to show my support. I just want the kids to have fun and be kids. A lot of them do look up to us as role models. And to spend some time with them and let them have fun, I think, is a perfect way to help."
Tracy decided he would try to help in another way. Even back in a Courant story in 2004, he said he and his brother Ryan, who played at Penn, and his friends like to produce music. Nine years later, they would do so in a most poignant way. Wanting to paint the hometown he loves in a positive light and to help the healing, they came together after the tragedy.
"It's brilliant," Canetti said. "They did it all. They wrote the song. Someone played guitar. Someone rapped. They brought in some vocals. They mixed it. They laid the track. They did a music video, too, which includes news clips. It's ridiculously good."
The song is on YouTube.
It's called, "We'll Be Alright."
And Newtown will be.
The Dynamo will help raise money for the United Way's Sandy Hook School Support Fund with an online auction. For more information, visit HoustonDynamo.com/NewtownAuction.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun