NEWTOWN, Conn. -- They came together from every part of the country, a Who's Who of U.S. soccer, to support a town in pain. Soccer Night in Newtown took place here on Monday night, three weeks after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and everywhere you looked there were fútbol players engaging the 1,200 kids from this soccer-loving community who filled two 90-minute sessions.
In one corner of a community center, MLS stars Landon Donovan and Kenny Cooper signed autographs and posed for pictures. In another, Mia Hamm dispensed hugs and hellos. A few feet away, Alexi Lalas played a small-sided game and screamed maniacally ("AHHHHHHH!") when one of the children scored a goal. And over at midfield Kristine Lilly and Christie Rampone signed soccer balls for a snaking line of admirers.
There were kids in Lionel Messi Barcelona jerseys, the U.S.' red-striped Where's Waldo jerseys, Leighton Baines' Everton jersey and even a Peter Nowak Poland jersey. Newtown, like so many other towns in America, has a thriving youth soccer culture.
"It's a huge part of the community," said Kara Gerace, whose husband, Mark, and three children attended the event. "It always has been, and it always will be."
"It was a terrific event," said her husband, Mark Gerace. "People have come out of nowhere to come help us in Newtown."
U.S. Soccer may be growing all the time, but the soccer community is still small enough that it feels like a family when everyone bands together for a common goal. The idea for Soccer Night in Newtown came from Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti, a Connecticut native, who simply wanted to do something to help. He convinced five Dynamo players to sign on, and from there it grew to nearly 50 current and former players.
"When we first dreamed this up and put it together, it was a reaction, to be honest with you, and once word got out it spread like crazy," Canetti said. "It's been wonderful to see the soccer community come together like this and help the residents of Newtown. What an amazing night this has been.
"Soccer is a global game, but it's also deeply rooted here in the U.S.," Hamm said. "As a game, nothing can bring people together like sports. So we're just hoping, be it an hour-and-a-half, three hours, just for the kids here in Newtown to be able to express laughter and love for a game we all care about."
Newtown native Marcus Tracy of the San Jose Earthquakes joined MLSers Sean Franklin, Omar Salgado, Ricardo Clark and Cam Weaver in one corner, where they answered questions from anyone who wanted to ask. In the wake of last month's shootings, Tracy got his Newtown friends together and produced a tribute song and video.
"Music production is one of my passions next to soccer, and my friend and neighbor and I got together a couple days after the tragedy happened and discussed options about what could we do to sort of help the healing process," Tracy explained. "It was also therapeutic for us, because music is a form of expression."
Not even the BCS championship game could keep down the attendance, which was limited to local residents given space constraints. As you looked at the smiles on everyone's faces, it became clear that organizers had struck the right tone for the event.
"To think we could get 40 players in the offseason to come from all over the U.S. and come here to try and brighten the day of some families who've been through some terrible, tragic times," said MLS commissioner Don Garber. "The kids are having a good time. Our players are having a good time. This is what I love about MLS. It's what makes me the proudest. I wouldn't compare our players to any players in any sport here or abroad."
It was only one night, and nothing can erase what happened here last month. But one small gesture from the U.S. soccer community made a difference in a town that's trying to heal. As the families and players walked out into the winter cold, they passed a simple sign that communicated everything you needed to know about this event and this place.
WE ARE SANDY HOOK. WE CHOOSE LOVE.