On the first sunny Thursday in April, cheers, shouts and whistles echoed across Lykins Square Park for the first time in years as Estrella de Oro Soccer Club (EDO) held soccer practice for neighborhood kids.
It has been almost two years since the club last practiced at Lykins Square Park. That came to an end when gunshots rang out across the park during practice.
“At that point in time, we probably had about 200 kids that were practicing in our program, that were here on a weekly basis, and there was an incident of violence that happened here in front of the parents, in front of the kids, in front of the families,” Coach Darrin Babson said. “It scared a lot of people and nobody wanted to come back.”
Following the incident, many families reached out to the coaches and shared that they weren’t comfortable going back to the park. At the next practice, only 10 players showed up.
“It was a tough thing to happen,” Babson said. “A bunch of kids kind of took a break, chose to play a different sport or went somewhere else.”
After regrouping, the club resumed practicing at a facility outside the neighborhood, which Babson said was a significant challenge since most of the players live in Lykins or Northeast neighborhoods.
EDO was founded in 2002 by Juan Muñiz, originally of Guadalajara, Jalisco. At the time, he was raising his sons Victor and Edgar in Lykins. Now, his son Victor coaches the teams alongside him, and Edgar serves on the Lykins Neighborhood Association board.
“They started it with the idea that the kids that live in this neighborhood, that live in this area, can have a safe place to play and enjoy a game that they love,” Babson said.
EDO’s youngest players are 6 years old, and they coach up to age 14. Many of them come from “soccer first” families, Babson said.
“They grow up in that culture, which isn’t innate to a lot of other Americans, and so they grow up watching the game with their families, they grow up attending the games, and they play the game themselves,” Babson said.
While they’re pretty liberal with the rules for younger players, Babson said when learning fundamentals, like they are now, it’s important to practice often.
“We work a lot on skills, their ability to attack and score,” Babson said. “We believe that the foundation of every soccer player is their ability to control the ball, what they can do technically with the ball, so that’s super important to what we teach. You have to walk before you can run.”
Coach Victor Muñiz said the decision to abandon Lykins Square Park was hard since so many of the players were from the neighborhood, but their biggest concern was safety.
“That was a really hard decision, we lost a lot of kids because of that because they all live right here and we had to move to a different location,” Muñiz said. “It traumatized a lot of kids and, luckily a lot of kids overcame that, but it’s pretty traumatic, especially for kids.”
Muñiz knows the kids who witnessed it will probably think about it on Independence Day or when there’s other loud noises. He grew up in the neighborhood and experienced similar situations when he was young, although he said there were more gangs back then.
“All the neighborhood kids decided to make gangs and it was pretty heavy here, but the thing that surprised us is that regardless of where they were from, soccer kind of brought them together and they set that aside,” Muñiz said.
He said there were frequently fights, and the biggest one he remembers was after soccer practice in 2008 at the park. Muñiz recalled hearing screams and then eight shots ringing out, with what he described as “intent to kill somebody.”
In October 2020, Mayor Quinton Lucas and city officials took a walking tour of the Lykins neighborhood, the first of many tours in Kansas City’s neighborhoods, to listen to concerns about lacking resources, crime and poverty.
During the tour, Babson said nobody should underestimate the power of something like soccer to have a generational change in the community.
“We see all this crime, but this is our home and we have to stay here where we can be able to live and sustain our lives in a healthy way, and this is what we can afford,” Muñiz said last October. “I mean, we’re working for it. All these people, we’re proud of the work that’s happening.”
Brothers Juan and Carlos Gomez grew up in Lykins, playing soccer with the Muñiz brothers. Now, Carlos has an 8-year-old son on the team.
“When we were little we didn’t have what these kids have now,” Juan said. “It’s good to have something going on in the community for the new generation. It’s a good feeling. It gives a good vibe to the neighborhood.”
The brothers agreed the neighborhood isn’t a bad place – and it’s changed a lot since they were kids – but it has good and bad like anywhere else. Juan hopes soccer will keep his nephews and their friends out of bad things as they get older.
Knowing how much the players needed this positive activity in their neighborhood, something sparked in Muñiz, and a renewed effort to practice at the park began. The coaches had a long discussion with Gregg Lombardi, executive director of the Lykins Neighborhood Association, who helped them get the facilities ready for practice.
“It’s just a matter of leaders coming together, that’s what it came down to,” Muñiz said. “It’s taking back the territory that I grew up with, and I feel like some of these kids should claim it as their home. This is their home, too.”
Playing for the club shows the kids they’re not alone, especially since some of them have been stuck at home behind a screen for the past year, Muñiz said, adding that he’s noticed a new shyness in some of his returning players. But he’s encouraged about the future of the program, and was thankful to neighbors who came out to help them paint lines on the field.
“Sure, we want to win and grow and be better at soccer, but the whole idea is to get these kids to be something or someone,” Muñiz said, adding that he challenges players to think about the future if they don’t make it to professional soccer.
The club prioritizes education, pushing students to stay in school and pursue higher education. The EDO coaches go above and beyond teaching young players, helping immigrant families communicate with schools, fill out paperwork or understand American systems.
For now, the club will practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Lykins Square Park at 6 p.m. Coaches hope to expand practice times to almost daily when school lets out for the summer.
“This is a major step towards the neighborhood reclaiming the park and realizing its potential as a major neighborhood resource,” Lombardi said. “The park is truly a gem and for years it has been under-utilized for play, relaxation and exercise for Lykins residents. Far too often, it’s been a crime scene.”
Parents with children who are interested in playing in the program should contact Lizette Valdes at email@example.com and she will put them in contact with Victor, or visit E.D.O. Academy on Facebook.