Amid the Gritty mania, Eagles fanaticism and Sixers process-trusting, it’s easy to overlook Philly’s thriving soccer culture. But for many of the city’s immigrant communities, the sport has been front and center for the past two months — and it all culminates in one final game.
On the bright green turf of Talen Energy Stadium in Chester on Saturday, the best of 52 teams representing every curve of the globe compete in the third annual Philadelphia Unity Cup Championship.
The mission of the tournament, which was launched in 2016 by Mayor Jim Kenney, is to help forge connections via the common language of soccer. All the matches are free to the public, and each team is made up of a hodgepodge of amateur players of different genders and levels of experience. But doing well in the tournament can be about more than team unity and pride.
For Côte d’Ivoire coach Neewilli Saie — who led his team to the finals this year — the Unity Cup isn’t just about establishing community and creating friendships with others, though that is an integral component. It’s also a chance for the Southwest Philadelphia immigrant soccer community to get recognition.
“The teams that have won the Unity Cup for the past two years have always been from Southwest Philly,” he said pointedly, “but we don’t have a good field where we live and practice.”
When Saie went to Overbrook High, and later to Neumann University, he was fortunate to have access to good soccer resources, he said. But young people in his neighborhood aren’t as lucky as he was. The Ivory Coast Unity Cup team, primarily made up of players from the Junior Lone Star FC club, trains on the unkempt surface of McCreesh Playground.
“Our children need to be able to see the teenagers and adults in our community practice and participate in friendlies,” Saie said. “The love of soccer lives in their blood, but there is nowhere to see it.”
Per Saie, exposure during the citywide tournament allows him and others organizing at the grassroots level to network, and also to spotlight their passion for the sport — and the need for the sport’s survival in their neighborhoods.
For Unity Cup Executive Director Bill Salvatore, that showcasing is key.
“Even though this is an ‘adult-based’ tournament,” Salvatore said, “it is especially important for the kids. Through the tournament, we’re able to engage with other local soccer organizations to create workshops and clinics for youth — and we’re able to incorporate soccer back into these kids’ lives.”
In spite of this all, the World-Cup style tournament has so far remained mostly under the radar where Philly sports fans are concerned.
Soccer is a tough sell in our city. It just is.” Salvatore admitted to Billy Penn. “We have a team [the Philadelphia Union] but they’re based out in Chester and it is challenging to get city folk down there.”
Pat Henigen, coach for third-place contending Ireland, is a second-generation Irish-American who grew up playing soccer in Philly and never “got into the American football thing.”
“Sunday afternoons were never about giving into the Eagles craze,” Henigen said. “Sunday afternoons were always about me, my brothers and my dad playing together.”
By being a part of the Gaelic Athletic Association and coaching in this tournament, Henigen has gained a sense of belonging with his Irish roots.But his favorite thing about the Unity Cup is how it brings all of the city’s soccer fanatics closer.
“I’ve been able to re-connect and network with people from different points in my life, people whose cultures I never much knew about,” he said. “There’s a coach on the Jamaica team who I used to play with in college. There’s a Liberia player who I used to coach during training sessions when he was only about 10 or 11 years old.”
Henigen will encourage his players to watch other Unity Cup teams compete if they don’t have training. “By knowing other teams’ schedules, we’ve become much more in-tune with who they are,” he said. Another way the players have connected with other teams? “Healthy trash talking on Facebook and Twitter!”
The 2018 Unity Cup championship game is between the Ivory Coast and Liberia, while the third-place game puts the USA and Ireland head-to-head. There’s also a naturalization ceremony in the middle of the day. All games (and parking!) are free for spectators.
Here’s the schedule for the Unity Cup events on Saturday, Oct. 13 at Talen Energy Stadium:
- 11 a.m.: Gates open
- 12 p.m.: Youth game
- 1 p.m.: Third place game: United States vs. Ireland
- 3:30 p.m.: Naturalization ceremony
- 4 p.m.: Parade of Nations
- 5 p.m.: Championship game: Liberia vs. Ivory Coast
- 7 p.m.: Awards ceremony