There are plenty of fine soccer fields in and around Philadelphia for those with the dough to rent them. But Philadelphia Lone Star FC train in the dim shadows. “Sometimes you show up and the lights aren’t even on,” said veteran striker and captain Anthony Allison. Fatoma Turay, formerly the team’s midfield schemer and now head coach, agreed: “You leave important stuff, don’t want to miss training, you get there and it’s dark.”
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 Philly Lone Star’s players, their coaches, or the supporters who call the rougher edges of Southwest Philadelphia home.
No lights, No Problem
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 club founder Bobby Ali, head coach when they made their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup debut in 2017. And when it rains, and the dirt turns to slurry, Philly’s Lone Stars play in the mud. “We improvise,” said club president Paul Konneh III.
(It's a family affair with Philadelphia Lone Star, formerly Junior Lone Star)
“Southwest Philly is a typical black neighborhood with problems,” said Coach 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.
The players prepare for training daily on a low stone wall patched with concrete. Under their feet is evidence of a busy drug trade – broken glass from vials bought and sold behind home plate at the far end of McCreesh Playground. It’s not for the faint of heart. But Philadelphia Lone Star is known in the neighborhood. “There’s a lot of street people, gangs and guns around here,” said Mohamed Tall, a 23-year-old Mali-born defender who climbed through the ranks at the club to the senior team that currently plays in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). “But when we play, when they know we’re Junior Lone Star, they leave us alone. When you wear this logo, you’re respected here.”
“When we look around at some of the teams we play against, they have everything,” said Turay, who was a member of the first Lone Star side to compete in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, in 2017. “They have luxuries when they train. But us, we got bumps and ruts and you have to take three touches just to get the ball under control.”
(It's a good night when the lights come on at McCreesh Playground in Southwest Philly)
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 – that’s how I ended up as a playmaker!”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 crazy stuff in the streets,” said coach Ali, a Liberian immigrant and former goalkeeper who now runs the club’s U-23 squad in the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). He calls Philadelphia 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.”
(Philadelphia Lone Star practice every day at McCreesh - and all ages are welcome)
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, getting set to guide his side to a second tilt at the David-and-Goliath opportunities of the U.S. Open Cup. “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, Philadelphia Lone Star is much more than a club. “I grew up in this,” he said of his first club, that now fields four teams – three men’s and one women’s – and boasts over 100 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 them,” 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.”
(Lone Star in action against Ocean City Nor'easters in the 2017 U.S Open Cup)
“There’s a lot of street people, gangs and guns around here,” added young star Mohamed Tall, a commanding presence in the first team's backline. He came to the States with his mother at the age of 13 and refers to Lone Star as his second family. “But when you’re Lone Star, you got people looking out for you.”
Away Days “Like Heaven”
Lone Star travel to Alvernia University on May 8th to take on Reading United, a minor-league affiliate of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and one of the top youth teams in the country for the last quarter-century. 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 Coach Turay. Captain Allison agreed: “We love playing away. It’s like heaven for us. We play better.”
For the young ones in the side, like Tall, who look for guidance from Turay and Allison, 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 33. “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.”
(A club and a continuum -- the Lone Stars of tomorrow at McCreesh Playground)
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!”
That fantasy may never become reality, but 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 Philadelphia Lone Star shines brighter than any floodlight.