Team Liberia goes toe-to-toe with Team Mali at Smith Playground during this year's Unity Cup's Round of 32 in August, finishing with a 3-2 score Credit: Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

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As Philadelphia’s International Unity Cup gets deeper into its knockout stages, the competition’s standout teams are separating themselves from the field.

Now in its seventh year, the annual soccer tournament follows a World Cup format, with teams made up of players representing various countries around the world. Last month, Team Ukraine made a major statement by thumping 16 goals past Angola in its second tournament matchup, while Team Vietnam’s captain leveraged his experience on other teams to give a strong first round showing.

But one squad might yet again be the cream of the crop: Liberia.

The team representing the West African nation has won the tournament four times, with their most recent victory in 2021. This year could be a repeat — Team Liberia had already pummeled Uruguay and Ireland in the group stage before defeating Mali 3-2 in the Round of 32.

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What makes the team so good? According to Liberia’s coach Jayson Waylee, it has to do with Southwest Philadelphia’s flourishing Liberian community.

“We have a lot of soccer players. We pick the best players from all the club teams,” Waylee said.

Also coach of Philadelphia-based amateur club Cavalla FC, Waylee has led Team Liberia since the Unity Cup’s inception in 2016, when Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration founded it as a way to celebrate Philly’s immigrant communities. The squad practices weekly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, as players juggle commitments to other local soccer clubs.

The team’s players come from one of the largest stateside Liberian communities. An estimated 15,000 people of Liberian descent live in the Philadelphia area, many of whom came to the U.S. and settled in Southwest Philly after the country was battered by a civil war.

Many of those newcomers brought a love of soccer to their new home. Though Liberia’s national team has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup and has only qualified for Africa’s own soccer championship twice, soccer is by far the country’s most popular sport. Liberia has a professional league with 12 teams, and the nation’s current president, George Weah, was the only African to ever be named the FIFA World Player of the year.

A Team Liberia player goes in for a pass against Team Mali during their Round of 32 matchup in the 2022 Unity Cup Credit: Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

For Team Liberia, winning the 2022 Unity Cup would hold another layer of meaning: this year marks the Philadelphia-Liberia Bicentennial Celebration, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the first free Black Americans settling in Liberia — and helping found an independent African nation.

“Winning championships means a lot for us and our community,” Waylee said. “Especially winning it this year would mean a lot for my country.”

Even if you’re used to winning, sometimes specific victories stand out. For Waylee, it was the team’s third title in 2019, where they beat Team USA 3-0 in the final. It was the final championship for one of its players, Daniel Yallah, a member of the Philadelphia Union Academy who died of cancer in November 2019 after that year’s Unity Cup.

“We still have video of him lifting the trophy,” Waylee said, adding that he keeps in touch with Yallah’s family. “We knew that we were going to lose him. It was very emotional for the team.”

Team Liberia celebrates their 2016 Unity Cup win against Team Sierra Leone at Subaru Park Credit: Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

Beyond the tournament’s sentimental value, Waylee believes what makes the Unity Cup special are the opportunities to make friends from different teams. “Learning about other cultures and different countries is very important,” Waylee said.

That doesn’t mean there’s a lack of competition. Though coach Waylee wouldn’t describe them as “rivals,” he said he gets most excited about playing against the teams representing Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and the U.S.

“When we play them, we better bring our ‘A’ game,” Waylee said. “They have good players, like Liberia.”

Liberia faces Romania in the Round of 16 at South Philly’s Smith Playground on Sept. 9. The Unity Cup final is scheduled for Oct. 8.