Outcasts United

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about soccer in the U.S. is that it's still too peripheral to inspire anything close to the fanaticism it sparks elsewhere on the globe. Here, the game is often more associated with suburban moms than with their shin-guarded sons and daughters, even if one of those kids occasionally grows up to be Mia Hamm.

This lapse may not be the explicit focus of Outcasts United, New York Times journalist Warren St. John's splendidly reported new book about an unlikely soccer program in the outlying Atlanta burb of Clarkston, Georgia, but you can't turn a page without being confronted by the implications of the U.S.'s love/hate relationship with the game. Clarkston's residents woke up one morning and found that the city's housing projects had become havens of resettlement for refugee families from war-ravaged locales including Liberia, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Soccer is a pastime like sandlot baseball or touch football to the often-traumatized boys on the Fugees, a ramshackle intramural team of nine- to 17-year-olds that St. John follows, along with its Jordanian founder Luma Hassan Mufleh, a Smith-educated woman whose role as volunteer coach quickly expands to extended family member and social worker.

St. John's aim is to draw a portrait of small-town America in transition, and his eye for detail is compelling from start to finish. Mufleh's struggles with her team's problems of adjustment are exacerbated by a sometimes-hostile Clarkston: a mayor reluctant to endorse soccer practice on an unused local baseball field, a police department learning to exercise tolerance, local gangs both enticing and endangering her young charges. Still, even with all the astute sociological commentary, St. John clearly loves soccer, and here he captures enough cheerworthy triumphs that it will be clear why Universal Studios has already snatched up the film rights. —K. Leander Williams

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By Warren St. John. Spiegel & Grau, $24.95.