Once Sac State soccer players, Lisa Wrightsman and Tiffany Fraser now use sport to help transform lives
October 29, 2021
Lisa Wrightsman and Tiffany Fraser likely never would have crossed paths, but a Sacramento State soccer alumni team brought them together – changing their lives and the city for the better.
It was late 2010. Wrightsman ’05 (Communication Studies) was getting sober after years of alcohol and drug addiction and homelessness and had just returned from Brazil, where she had competed in the 2010 Homeless World Cup. Inspired by the experience, she decided to establish a women’s street soccer team – an informal, often pickup version of the game – in Sacramento, starting with the women in the transitional home where she lived at the time.
Fraser ’09 (Communication Studies) had spent the year-and-a-half post-graduation working at a financial firm and coaching part time – and trying to find ways to give back to the community. She had heard about Wrightsman’s work with street soccer and introduced herself at their next game.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I heard what you’re doing with the women’s team. I’m looking for a place to volunteer. Can I help?’ ” Wrightsman said. “And I was like, ‘Yes, please. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ ”
Wrightsman and Fraser, it turns out, knew very well what they were doing. Soon after they met, they launched Sacramento’s chapter of Street Soccer USA, a national street soccer organization serving individuals struggling with homelessness, at-risk youth, and other underrepresented populations. Wrightsman is the team’s managing director, Fraser the organization’s national chief of staff.
Their meeting also was personally meaningful – they were married in 2019.
The goal of Street Soccer USA is straightforward: Provide a space where people who don’t otherwise have access to team sports can enjoy a supportive atmosphere, have fun, and learn skills that are transferable to life beyond the sport.
The organization has been a hit in Sacramento. Approximately 500 people participate weekly in various co-ed, women’s, and youth leagues at their facility in O’Neil Park. Participants range from kids as young as 4 to adults in their 60s, and from individuals to families.
Their youth programs, based primarily in Sacramento’s Oak Park and the Broadway neighborhoods, serve approximately 500 at-risk kids. Further, last year they launched Ladies First, a partnership with the California Storm semiprofessional team to offer girls ages 6-14 monthly camps, led by an all-women coaching staff often including current and former Sac State soccer players.
Sacramento State video by Phillip Altstatt and Hrach Avetisyan
“We have been fortunate to be doing this long enough to not only, in the case of our adult players, see them progress and grow in their lives, but also to see their children progress and grow and learn,” Fraser said. “When you think about something so big and sometimes hard to accomplish like breaking cycles, we’ve actually gotten to see that occur multiple times.”
In the middle of the pandemic last year, they cut the ribbon on Union Pacific Street Soccer USA Park at O’Neil Park in the heart of Sacramento’s Broadway district. The park provides the organization with a dedicated facility and allows for adult pay leagues that help support its other programs.
If that wasn’t enough, Fraser and Wrightsman also make their on-screen debut next year in The Beautiful Game, a Netflix film about the English Homeless World Cup team. The pair not only play teammates of a main character, but also consulted on the film, based on their experience with Street Soccer and the Homeless World Cup, an annual competition between street soccer teams from across the globe.
The Wrightsman-Fraser partnership and their complementary talents have been integral to street soccer’s success in Sacramento. While participating in the 2010 Homeless World Cup as part of a men’s team, Wrightsman experienced participants’ camaraderie and enthusiasm.
At the time, she had no money and little to her name – but she did have 25 years of soccer experience.
“My teammates were not experienced players, but they love the game,” Wrightsman said. “Being able to teach them how to pass properly and dribble and give them a tiny bit of coaching was like gold to them. For me it was, ‘OK, I found something I can give. I want to give back.’ ”
The potential for a women’s team to have a positive impact in Sacramento was evident to Fraser from the first practice she attended, and she used her organizational, coaching, and fundraising skills to help make Wrightsman’s vision a reality.
“I had never seen such disorganized soccer before with people enjoying it,” Fraser said. “I understood what she was talking about in terms of the environment and how everyone felt included and excited to be a part of it, and motivated to do what they needed to do to come back again.”
A key component to Street Soccer USA is simply providing access to what is often a prohibitively expensive sport in the United States. For many participants, it may be their first time playing a team sport – or, possibly, a first experience in a welcoming and encouraging environment.
“There’s a lot of really transferable lessons, like being supportive to another player, knowing what it feels like to have somebody supporting you in the right place,” Wrightsman said.
The experience is similar to that of Wrightsman and Fraser as athletes on the Sac State soccer team, where both say they learned valuable life skills applicable to their current roles. They also discovered the importance of having a support system.
“On campus and within our team and the athletic department, there was an interest in having a community feel and a very connected feel,” Fraser said. “It didn’t feel too big and too overwhelming. For me, it felt like a place I could really feel embedded and a part of and grow within. I’ve always appreciated that about Sac State.”
Wrightsman had “an amazing time being a student-athlete at Sac State,” but her personal struggles intensified after college as she tried to figure out who she was without soccer – and without her teammates to lean on.
But meeting Fraser and reconnecting with the University over the past decade, she said, has been “really healthy.”
“It is very meaningful to go back to the field and the campus with good feelings when you spent so much time there,” she said. “I’m glad that it’s a positive part of my life.”