Upper Darby boasts one of the most diverse populations in the state so it only makes sense that a soccer team originating from the Delaware County community would have representatives from so many different countries.
Players from Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa, each with their own style and approach to the game, helped build the team initially by simple showing up.
“When we started it was just to have somewhere to go to have fun and then all of these boys in the neighborhood started showing up,” said head coach Mohamed Mansaray. “Since we had so many young guys we thought we would make something out of it to motivate them and keep them out of trouble.”
Eight years later the team has expanded beyond the neighborhood to attract players from as far away as Atlantic City and on Saturday will begin a new era for the club in the United Premier Soccer League, a national semi-pro league.
“Once we started beating some of the bigger guys, eyes opened and we started attracting better players,” said Sheku Sillah, the club’s president. “Now we’re just looking for another opportunity for these young guys to have a chance to keep playing against better competition.”
The team has played both in the Philadelphia Premier Soccer League and the Casa Soccer League in Philadelphia. The ages of the players range from 18 to 27.
“We’ve been playing together long enough now it’s no longer a team, it’s a family,” said Paul Marshall, a forward who is originally from Liberia and is one of only a couple players over the age of 25 in the group. “It’s just the game; love of the game brings us together.”
Upper Darby Football Club (not to be confused with the youth club named Upper Darby Fútbol Club) and Junior Lone Star’s second team (their first team plays in the NPSL) both joined the American Division of the new Northeast Conference ahead of the spring season. Other teams in the division hail from North Jersey, Maryland and New York.
Upper Darby’s first league match will be Saturday at 5 p.m. at Ardmore Avenue School against Junior Lone Star, whose own home field (Bonner & Prendergast Catholic High School) is only a mile away.
“When it’s Junior Lone Star everybody is pumped because it’s a Philadelphia derby,” said goalkeeper Harvet Tassembedo, a Burkina Faso native who is in college at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. “Nobody wants to lose against Junior Lone Star.”
The rivalry with Junior Lone Star and other local teams has helped fuel the growth of the game in southwest Philadelphia and the nearby towns in Delaware County.
So too has the International Unity Cup started two years ago by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Upper Darby FC captain Alpha Kanu, 22, was part of the Sierra Leone team that lost in the 2017 final to Liberia at Lincoln Financial Field.
Kanu said the experience with the Unity Cup has helped him grow as a player and a leader, which he said on his own team includes responsibilities off the field checking up on players and keeping everyone on the same page.
“There’s no superstars on the team so if you think you’re a superstar you’re on the wrong team,” said Kanu, who is getting ready to graduate from Temple University next month. “As long as you show you can do the work, come to practice and show you’re ready to play you’re on the same level as anyone else.”
Keeping everyone moving in the same direction isn’t always easy on a team with so many diverse backgrounds, but the passion they share and the desire they have to keep playing drives them forward.
“When I started playing in Ghana, I used to play on the ground, no shoes,” said Favor Weah, a 20-year-old midfielder for the team. “In Africa, it’s something we do every day. It’s the only sport we love.”
While Weah and his teammates dream of playing the game professionally, being part of the team has helped keep many of them on a pathway to opportunities in college. Weah is heading to Keystone College this fall, where he plans to play for the school’s Division III soccer team.
“It’s been a good thing for the neighborhood and some of the younger guys just to keep them moving, healthy and in the right direction instead of a lot of the guys going around and getting into whatever they might be doing to get in trouble,” said Sillah.