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Growing up ‘with a ball on their feet’

The Washington-Bartram soccer showdown highlights the league’s new diversity.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The boys’ 3A Public League soccer championship is supposed to start in five minutes, but Bartram has not yet arrived.

As the game’s scheduled start time comes and goes, all the clichés regarding the chaos of Public League athletics begin to rear their ugly heads.

But before the pessimism can take root, Bartram’s bus appears. As first-year coach Ian Turner and his players spill out and scamper across the parking lot, a ripple of anticipation spreads.

For boys’ soccer, at least, the “same old Public League” is increasingly a thing of the past.

For starters, the game is being played under the bright lights of the sparkling Northeast supersite. Opened in 2004, the multi-million-dollar facility is now home to the largest turf soccer field in the city, besting even Lincoln Financial Field.

At stake in tonight’s game is not only the Public League championship but also the right to face the Catholic League winner for the city title and the PIAA District 12 championship.

And perhaps the most dramatic change in boys’ soccer in recent years is the players themselves.

Most of the Bartram team is from Liberia, with a handful of West Africans and Jamaicans rounding out the roster.

The Braves’ opponent, defending Public League champion George Washington, also features several players from Liberia and Jamaica – as well as Poland, Belarus, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ghana, Colombia, and New Guinea.

“Soccer in Philadelphia has always been an immigrant sport,” explains District soccer chairperson Jack Creighton.

In decades past, soccer-playing immigrants hailed primarily from southern and eastern Europe. Most of the current players are from West Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet republics.

“The demographics have been changing rapidly, but [the new immigrant groups] still hold soccer dear. They use the sport as a tie to their country. They take it so seriously, it’s unbelievable,” Creighton says.

Tenth grader Somcan Thaenrat, an ardent George Washington fan who was born in Liberia, is a perfect example.

As the game begins, Thaenrat and a group of girlfriends make their way to the front of the bleachers and cheer loudly. “[Soccer] is our sport, so we support it all the time,” she explains.

The early object of their raucous devotion is George Washington’s Chea Fineboy, a Liberian 11th grader whose energy and speed make him appear to be everywhere at once.

Every time Fineboy touches the ball, the girls scream themselves hoarse.

With 1:37 left in the first half, their cheers are vindicated. Washington sophomore Bacho Vepkhuadze threads a beautiful pass to the streaking Fineboy, who beats the Bartram goalie for the game’s first score.

Even the Bartram fans cheer. Fineboy, after all, is one of their own.

Higher up in the bleachers, Vepkhuadze’s family also celebrates, albeit more mutedly.

Soccer has been Vepkhuadze’s passion since his childhood in the Republic of Georgia, says his mother, Eka Barnabishivili, 35.

“In 6th grade, Bacho started to play. Now, everywhere in his room are posters of his favorite players.”

While Vepkhuadze’s love of the game is shared by his teammates, there have been some significant cultural differences to manage, says first-year coach Chris Reid.

“There are different ways that they approach the game,” he explains. “In Eastern Europe, they play a much more physical style. The South Americans really focus on ball skills.

African kids like to play a pass-and-move style.”

Initially, melding the disparate styles proved difficult. Earlier in the season, Washington lost to Bartram, 2-1.

Now, the team’s diversity is a strength.

With a 1-0 halftime lead, Reid takes advantage of his team’s flexibility. After a red card, Bartram is a man down, so Reid makes slight adjustments to his team’s approach.

The second-half plan is to play “ball to feet” – to pass fluidly, make outmanned Bartram run as much as possible, and counterattack when the opportunity arises. As the teams take the field, Reid implores his team, “No more shots!”

Fiery junior sweeper Kesper Krzesinski yells back, “I got you!”

In the stands, Krzesinksi’s father Wieslaw, 45, smiles. Having played professionally in Poland for 12 years, Wieslaw knows soccer and encourages his son’s passion.

Bartram senior Alpha Moseray (left) prepares to make a move while George Washington senior Kwame Wilson defends.

“When I was 14,” he says, “I went to a soccer academy in Warsaw, where I stayed until I signed a professional contract.” He comes to his son’s games whenever his work schedule allows, and he follows tonight’s action closely.

The breadth of knowledge and experience among the small crowd of Philadelphia high school soccer aficionados is astonishing.

The official timekeeper for the game is 85-year-old Nick Kasian, who played goalkeeper professionally after emigrating from the Ukraine in 1949. By Kasian’s own count, this is the 3,768th Public League game he has refereed since he began in 1967.

Also on hand is Earl “Butch” Mathes, Reid’s predecessor at George Washington and now the head soccer coach at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Mathes won Public League titles at George Washington in 2005 and 2008. Not coincidentally, he was one of the Public League pioneers in building a team made up primarily of international players from the new wave of immigrants.

“I was a physical education teacher, and I asked the [international] kids in my gym classes to come out for the team,” says Mathes.

“Kids from other countries grow up with a ball on their feet. They’ve made it a better game [in the Public League], with a higher quality of play.”

As if on cue, in the 46th minute, Fineboy strikes again. After winning a contested ball in the Bartram end, he breaks away from the pack, stops, and drills a perfect ball into the corner of the net.

From there, Washington holds on easily. In the final minutes, Reid is able to empty his wildly diverse bench and join his players in celebrating their repeat as Public League champions.

A week later Washington put up tremendous fights before suffering heartbreaking 1-0 losses to Father Judge in the City Championship and Unionville in the PIAA playoffs.

“It was a great showing for the Public League,” says a proud Mathes. “Six years ago, it was pretty much all American kids. But the foreign kids are the foundation of soccer in the Public League right now.”