There are plenty of fine soccer fields in and around Philadelphia for those with the dough to rent them. But Junior Lone Star FC, 2017 U.S. Open Cup debutantes, train in the dim shadows. “Sometimes you show up and the lights aren’t even on,” said captain and striker Anthony Allison. Fatoma Turay, the team’s midfield schemer, agreed: “You leave important stuff, don’t want to miss training, you get there and it’s dark.”
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The club trains every day that weather and circumstance allow in a public park on a gritty corner of Philly. Founded in 2001 by West African immigrants, most of them refugees from war-ravaged Liberia, the club took its name from the Liberian national team known as the Lone Stars. Adversity is nothing new to Junior Lone Star’s players, their coaches, or the supporters who call the rougher edges of Southwest Philadelphia home.
When the lights don’t come on, the players move a little closer to the basketball court that’s always lit. When there’s someone on the rock-hard dirt soccer field, surrounded by tattered fencing, they compromise. They share. “We take half the field and they take half,” said coach and founder Bobby Ali. And when it rains, and the dirt turns to slurry, Junior Lone Star play in the mud. “We improvise,” said club president Paul Konneh III.
“Southwest Philly is a typical black neighborhood with problems,” said Turay, who hails from Sierra Leone and came to America in his early teens. The neighborhood, on the banks of the Schuylkill River below Baltimore Ave, has long been a haven for West African refugees and immigrants. It’s also plagued by crime, with above-average robbery, drug and murder stats. “When we look around at some of the teams we play against, they have everything. They have luxuries. But us, we got bumps and ruts and you have to take three touches just to get the ball under control.”
Turay remembers his first touches of a soccer ball. They came thousands of miles away on the streets of Koidu in eastern Sierra Leone. “I must have been only six and I was sitting on the ground watching my older brothers play and they needed an extra.” He jumped up and joined in, paying close attention to the commands of the older boys. “They insisted that when I got the ball I pass it on to someone else – ‘just keep it moving’ they said. I’ve been doing that ever since and it’s why I’m a playmaker now!”
On the field, off the streets
Even in a land of opportunity like America, opportunities are relative. “When I first came to Philadelphia, there was nothing for the African kids who were here, and they would get into all sorts of crazy stuff in the streets,” said coach Ali, a Liberian immigrant and former goalkeeper. He calls Junior Lone Star “his whole heart,” and sounds worn-down from the thankless work, from caring too much and knowing the deck is stacked. “Someone needed to give these kids a chance, to keep them in school. Soccer was a way to do it.”
Nothing is handed to Junior Lone Star, which started with eleven players at the turn of the century. In the time since, they have emerged as one of the top amateur teams in the city, the region beyond, and now, even the nation. In 2016, one of Junior Lone Star’s young sons, Ghana-born Derrick Jones, signed a professional contract with local Major League Soccer outfit Philadelphia Union.
Family is a word you hear a lot around the club. And perseverance, doing what you have to do, comes naturally to the players. “We don’t make excuses,” said Turay, pivot and passer in a team that likes to attack. “We do what we have to do. We don’t cry because we’re from Southwest and don’t have everything. We deal with it. We can compete with anyone because we’re good and we know where we come from.”
For Allison, who starred for the Wilmington University Wildcats before professional stints in Puerto Rico and Sweden, Junior Lone Star is much more than a club. “I grew up in this,” he said of his first club, now with three teams and over 70 players. “This is family. It’s not just a team you play for; it’s who we are. We helped build it. We have fun and look out for each other here in Southwest. And we’re all Lone Star.”
“The younger kids look up to us,” said Turay about the next generation breaking into the first team, some of them still in high school and refusing the offers from local clubs with more money and reliable lighting. “We’re older brothers to them. We look out for them. A big part of this is keeping these kids off the street.”
Away days “like heaven”
Junior Lone Star will reach a milestone in May when they travel to coastal New Jersey to take on the Ocean City Nor’easters in the First Round of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. The Nor’easters have been strong in recent years, upsetting five full-professional sides at the home field they call the Beach House. But the young men from Southwest Philadelphia are used to playing against touted teams in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). And they’re ready. “We’re not afraid of anyone,” said Turay. Allison agreed: “We love playing away. It’s like heaven for us. We play better.”
For the young ones in the side who look for guidance from Turay and Allison, and coach Ali, with his sad eyes and big heart, it’s a chance for something bigger. Something beyond the problems of the neighborhood: The dream of professional soccer. “For us old guys it’s just another chance to play,” said Turay, not exactly elderly at 31. “But for the kids, it’s a chance to grow and learn. Maybe get seen by someone. They’ll play against more mature players and test themselves. They’ll see what’s out there.”
For President Konneh, a tireless advocate of this indomitable club, there’s a clear point on the horizon. “There’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t go to the Fourth Round of the Cup and get to play an MLS team, maybe Philadelphia Union!”
Until the big day this May in Jersey, or even a fantasy match-up against the biggest team in the land, the young men from Philly will keep training and playing. In the mud or in the dark, however they need to. “It might not be perfect, but it’s home, and we make it work,” said Allison, a glimmer in his voice, knowing the spirit of Junior Lone Star shines brighter than any floodlight.