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Junior Lone Star: A Soccer Spark in the Dark

Junior Lone Star, a team from the south of Philadelphia competing in the UPSL, is a club originally founded in 2001 for West African refugees fleeing their home countries. Read the story of this team which is like no other one.

Junior Lone Stars at training

Jonah Fontela
From Cambridge, USA

Every evening they gather. Junior Lone Star’s players emerge from the row houses of Southwest Philly at dusk, that hour when work’s done, school’s out and the sun dips behind the highway ramps. They ready for training 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.

“There’s a lot of street people, gangs and guns around here,” said Mohamed Tall, a 23-year-old defender for the club’s under-23 team that competes in the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL). “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.”

West African refugees

Junior Lone Star was founded in 2001 by and for West African refugees fleeing war in their home countries. The club grew grew from a handful of Liberians into a pan-African soccer congress with four teams. They’re a power not just in Philadelphia’s inner city, but nation-wide. The senior team, playing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), qualified for the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. Derrick Jones, now with MLS’s local top-tier side Philadelphia Union, is among a growing list of former Lone Stars who’ve moved from the ruddy pitches of South Philly up to the bigger, smoother stages.

“This club is my whole heart,” said Bobby Ali, his accent thick and his eyes tired. He coaches Tall and co. in a fast-moving attack-minded UPSL side currently second in their Northeast Conference in the American Division with nine wins from 11 games. “When I came to America, I was illegal. In Philly I noticed there was no youth set-up for the kids here and so many African kids who were getting into crazy stuff – street stuff. We wanted to give them a chance and we knew we could turn things around with soccer.”

Junior Londe Stars training

Many of the players, especially the young ones, spend nights at Bobby Ali’s house. They come to wash their clothes or have a hot meal when they have nowhere else to turn. Junior Lone Star has more challenges than your average soccer club. It’s no cliché to say: it’s more than a club. Much, much more. And Bobby Ali is more than a coach.

“He’s like a father to a lot of the kids in the UPSL team,” said Tall, who came from Mali with just his mother at the age of 13. “Sometimes a guy gets kicked out of his house or something goes wrong and Bobby’s door is always open. He treats the young ones like sons. When you don’t have a father, you always have Bobby.”

Neighborhoods like these have been forgotten. Or worse, they’re ignored. It’s hard to believe this is America, the wealthiest country on earth, when Junior Lone Star take the field, hoping it’s not one of those nights at McCreesh when the floodlights don’t click on.

“We have to beg the city to turn the lights on – it’s the same thing all the time,” said Ali, worn out from fighting the good fight for so many years. And when those lights don’t shine, the players don’t complain. These guys know adversity. They move a little closer to the basketball court, where there’s always light, and try not to get lost in the shadows.

All photos courtesy of Jonah Fontela