“When I first joined the team they were very bad,” Kovan Dalil said of his first impressions of the club he’d soon come to run. “I kept asking them: why don’t you fix the team?”
The answer he got was unsatisfying: It’s America and nobody cares.
What’s become of that team, renamed Sahara Gunners FC and just two wins away from a place in the U.S. Open Cup Proper, a tournament Lionel Messi helped Inter Miami to the Final of last month, is the story of a group of motivated refugees with a dream.
The 28-year-old Dalil is writing the next chapters of that story as he goes. Born in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, his family escaped across the border into Turkey when he was a boy. The Dalils then arrived in the U.S. in 2014 fleeing the hostilities of the Middle East.
“He started from zero, is willing to work hard and build a team,” Majed Mohamed, the 29-year-old defender, born in Yemen and now a mechanical engineer at a milk company, said of his old friend Dalil.
According to Mohamed, it’s Dalil's efforts that have turned the Sunday-Leaguers, happy with the status quo, into a team with a dream of a professional future for the city of Buffalo. “He’s doing it himself.”
Helping Hand from Buffalo’s NFL Heroes
Dalil, who went to high school in Buffalo and played at Erie Community College after a stretch with Turkish giants Galatasay’s youth academy, reached out to local celebrities in his adoptive city. The sports-centered company he founded, KM7 Clothing, was a natural connection point and before long NFL superstars like Damar Hamlin were helping the amateurs out with fees and field rentals.
The Gunners – who now, at Dalil’s urging, play in the nationwide United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) – are sponsored by the local Sahara Hookah Lounge. It should come as no surprise that the Lounge was founded and operated by Dalil – a true entrepreneur and connection-maker.
“I think soccer will be big in Buffalo because there’s a lot of refugees and young players that are very talented,” said Hamlin, the Bills’ safety whose on-field cardiac arrest against the Cincinnati Bengals was witnessed by millions during an airing of Monday Night Football.
Hamlin’s Chasing M’s Foundation is now the main shirt sponsor for the Gunners.
“We need to support these players to help them follow their dreams,” said Hamlin, who’s made a full recovery and is back on the gridiron. “The US Open Cup is the oldest tournament in America and I will be very happy for Kovan [Dalil] and the Sahara Gunners if they can qualify for such a big competition.”
It wasn’t just money, influential friends and boundless enthusiasm that helped Dalil transform the Gunners. The 28-year-old striker and captain catches the eye on the field as well. “It didn’t take long for other good players to come join the team to play with me,” he said.
“Kovan began by hunting the local pick-up games for players,” said midfielder Hussein Chaloob, born in Iraq before arriving first in Utica, New York and then to Buffalo. “It was our job to find the best players – guys who were only playing pick-up games and indoor in the winter – to try to build toward a more professional level.
“Nobody really thinks about Buffalo,” added Chaloob, who’s working toward becoming a family practice doctor and putting in grueling nursing shifts at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. “When you think about New York, most of the players end up in the City or Syracuse or Rochester. No one thinks about Buffalo as a home for skilled and talented players, but it is.”
“We’re giving a chance to new players and drawing attention to Buffalo,” he said
You can hear a swelling pride when the trio talk about the unfashionable city in Upstate New York, 20 miles from the Canadian border. In winters, ice floes rise and fall on the shores of Lake Erie and parts of the city resemble a frozen wasteland.
With its low housing costs and years of dwindling population, Buffalo became a hub for refugee settlement in the United States. Dalil, Mohamed and Chaloob brought with them a fervent passion for the game – and a desire to see it grow in their new home city, whose two major professional teams, the Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Sabres, have 116 years of history between them but no Super Bowls or Stanley Cups to brag about.
“Back home, soccer was our whole life growing up,” said Mohamed, part of the Lackawanna/Buffalo Yemeni community, the second-largest Yemeni community in the United States. “It’s the only game that kids play. No one doesn’t play it. The passion for it is huge.”
Improvements on the Field
Dalil, a striker with a keen eye for goal, is hard on himself for not scoring in the last Open Cup Qualifying Round game. But he can be forgiven as his side arrived with only 11 eligible players and needed to use a field-player as a goalkeeper.
“I promise you I ran six or seven miles that game,” said Dalil, who provided the assist on the winning goal. “We had to play so hard.”
That victory against IASC Boom of Rochester was the result of sheer grit and desire. And there’s plenty of that to go around in this Gunners team. “We knew we had nothing to lose,” said Mohamed. “We were short and had no goalie, but we got there knowing we had a good team and we could get it done.”
“The whole goal of this team since I joined was to find a way to have solid players who can get the job done no matter what the circumstances,” said Chaloob, hoping to see the Gunners become the first team from Buffalo to reach the Open Cup’s big stage in over 50 years. “Look at the best teams all over the world – that’s what they do.
“They use whatever they have,” added the University of Buffalo alumnus.
None of the Gunners are shy about telling you that their long-term plan – in its broadest strokes – is to bring professional soccer to the city of Buffalo. To combine the passion of their places of origins with the potential of their new shores.
While that might be a long shot, the Open Cup is a destination, unique in American team sports, where amateurs like the Gunners can earn the right to take on the top pros in direct competition.
And hardly one to miss out on an opportunity, Dalil sees the Open Cup as a door that needs opening. “One Open Cup game is like a whole season for us,” he said, ahead of another home game in the Third Round against Valhala FC of Cincinnati. “That’s how much we put into it because we know where it can lead.”Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.