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Inner-city girls inspired by women's World Cup

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
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Young girls go for the goals
  • The Anderson Monarchs girls' soccer team is part of an urban league in south Philadelphia
  • After leaving his legal practice, Walter Stewart started coaching the girls in 1998
  • Stewart got the team together to watch Sunday's women's World Cup
  • Despite its loss, the U.S. team has inspired the girls

Philadelphia (CNN) -- India Barnes charged a makeshift goal during Friday's soccer practice. The 9-year-old's blue and white uniform flapped at her back as she dodged past her teammates through a patch of dirt.

She tried to score and was stopped short by a defender, before hustling downfield to try again.

Following in the footsteps of her older brother, Barnes started playing soccer when she was 4 years old, for Coach Walter Stewart.

"I want to grow up and be a professional soccer player," Barnes gushed.

Barnes and her teammates got together Sunday to watch the women's World Cup finals with their coaches, who doled out pointers to their players over boxes of pizza.

Gallery: Women's World Cup final

Huddled on an oversized couch, the girls cheered on the U.S. team -- covering their faces during the infamous penalty kick phase.

Stewart started coaching the all-girls team in 1998 with only eight players at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia.

He began first as a volunteer boys' baseball and soccer coach before launching the girls' soccer club.

Stewart oversees the urban program, whose players are mostly African-Americans competing against suburban teams and elite clubs.

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"I don't recruit and we're not exclusive," Stewart said. "It's not like I went out and picked the girls. The program exists because the girls want to play and we happen to be in a predominately African-American neighborhood."

The Anderson Monarchs are named after two very important role models: Marian Anderson, the great opera singer from Philadelphia, and Jackie Robinson's 1945 Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs.

Stewart walked away from partnership at a downtown Philadelphia law firm to become a fourth-grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school and to volunteer his out-of-school hours to introducing soccer to urban youth who otherwise might not have a chance to play.

"I just think everybody should have an opportunity to play. There are girls who want to play that may not get the opportunity in many parts of the country, and they can play, and they're very good," he said.

Although he has girls who want to play, the team plays with virtually no funding on a borrowed patch of field in urban Philadelphia that is overused, dotted with patches of dirt and at times littered with trash and even drug paraphernalia.

"There would be no team if it wasn't for Coach Walt. It really is a labor of love. He doesn't get paid and we can barely afford uniforms," said Jada Pennick, whose daughter, Cyndey, plays for the team.

The players also face other obstacles. Many hail from neighborhoods that are rife with violence and drug use, that lack access to after-school activities.

"They deal with the challenges of inner-city living for black girls, and soccer isn't that popular socially," said Jafi Barnes, assistant coach. "We deal with racism, social pressures, but it does teach them about life and brings them closer together."

The Monarchs aren't just about soccer. Grades are just as important as picking up ball-handling skills -- or more so.

"The idea is to get to college. You can't play and you can't attend a Division I school without having the grades," Barnes said. "This is about a lifestyle change."

Barnes' two stepdaughters, Marquise and Kiya, play for the Monarchs. His wife, Karea, said the program changed her daughters -- who never played soccer before -- for the better.

"They're both straight-A students, they have perfect attendance, and soccer keeps them focused," she said. "People should know about the hidden talent in cities across the country and reach people who have never played."

The U.S. women's soccer team may have lost to Japan, but it's still inspiring this special team of inner-city girls who play soccer on a dusty field in urban Philly.

"They just want a chance to play," Stewart said. "They're no different than anybody else."