Cooper Kirts, a 14-year-old soccer player from Baltimore, scored a goal he’ll talk about forever. So did 8-year-old Landon Brown from Towson.
There aren’t too many American players who can say they have scored an international goal, but those two can.
Kirts and Brown have cerebral palsy, and as members of the Baltimore-based CP Soccer Mid-Atlantic program, were two of 17 players selected from around the country to play for the 14-and-under United States team at the Dublin International CP Football Festival in Ireland in late March.
The team trained for two days upon arrival and competed against opponents from Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. While Kirts’ alert reaction in front of the net and Brown’s precise shot that produced goals were all the talk, both players were also quick to mention how much they enjoyed the bond they formed with their new U.S. teammates and the competition.
“It was fun for me to meet other kids and to play against kids like me. The trip was a very good experience,” Kirts said.
For Brown, scoring overseas (he also had a second goal) along with going to a professional game and walking onto the field during a halftime ceremony were fond memories. But he made sure to add: “I also made some great friends.”
CP Soccer USA was founded in 2017 and its mission is to build a nationwide league for youths who suffer from cerebral palsy, stroke or traumatic brain injury.
Programs such as TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) offer a chance for players to participate in the Special Olympics. CP Soccer USA was created, in part, to provide a pipeline for youth players to prepare for Paralympic Soccer, the highest level of competition for athletes with disabilities.
“I think the program provides Landon a framework to achieve his dreams like every little kid that starts out playing soccer or whatever sport, wanting to go on to play in the Olympics or World Cup or whatever it may be,” said Christopher Brown, Landon’s father. “Being able to participate in this program is the start for him to maybe achieving that goal.”
To date, there are five teams (New York City, New Jersey, Mid-Atlantic, Houston and South Florida) serving a total of 50 kids who regularly attend practices. Programs are expected to be added in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the near future.
Kirts, who suffered an in-utero stroke either at birth or during the pregnancy that reduced some use of his body on his right side, grew up playing soccer through recreation programs. As he got older, the competition level grew more fierce, the playing fields became bigger and he could no longer keep up.
His parents, Carl and Lesley, learned about the CP Soccer USA program, founded in New Jersey, and Cooper was invited to a practice there.
In September 2018, the family started CP Soccer Mid-Atlantic with four players, and it is up to eight. The nonprofit organization is free to participate in, with practices and scrimmages taking place on Saturdays or Sundays, and pizza is often served afterward. It’s one of seven programs in the country.
“As soon as you get to 11-v-11 — which is around 12-, 13-years-old around here — it’s a big separation,” said Cooper’s father, Carl Kirts, who hopes the Mid-Atlantic program can soon grow to 15 to 20 participants. “Last year, [Cooper] played rec, but you could see separation and he wasn’t getting the ball as much. All those things kind of drove us down this path of needing a program where these kids can still compete, still get the same social and physical therapy benefits with what their friends are doing and be around kids like themselves.”
“It was all of those things and much more, but mostly it was the knowledge that we non-CP players, coaches and families were in the minority this weekend,” he wrote. “That the minority got to watch the majority, unabashed; perform, enjoy, revel, laugh, make friends, play, score, pass, tackle, dance, be recognized for their greatness, win, lose, tie, be happy, be upset, be exhausted and most of all seeing so many be among others like themselves for the first time. Finally, it was seeing our amazing children have a week like none other that they richly deserve and giving US much joy along the way.”