As Mitchell Torh dipped his hand into the cool waters of the river that separates Liberia from Ivory Coast, the young boy didn't understand the stakes: His family was escaping from a civil war raging in his native Liberia. In Torh's memory, the cost of the canoe trip across the Cavalla River was two bags of rice.
That started a journey that included a decade in a refugee camp in Ghana - where he was separated from his family - and finally ended at a soccer field in Southwest Philadelphia.
The listed address for the Junior Lone Star Soccer Club, on 62d Street in Southwest Philadelphia, is actually a three-bedroom rowhouse, home to a lot of trophies and medals on the living-room mantel and a soccer coach who said he usually sleeps on the floor, giving up his bed to his players. Six of them live with him.
"We're going to struggle together," said the coach, Bobby Ali.
They like to call their home field, nearby at 66th and Kingsessing, "No Excuses Field." Most passes of the ball leave trails of dirt, and they had to beg the city to turn the lights on at night.
Junior Lone Star's top team competes in the National Premier Soccer League, a semipro league with teams across the country. It is considered the fourth tier of American soccer. On Sunday, Junior Lone Star finished the regular season third among eight teams in the NPSL's Keystone Conference, behind teams from Binghamton, N.Y., and Allentown.
The team is largely Liberian immigrants - refugee is stamped on some of their immigration papers - but the club prides itself on its inclusivity.
Many team members are immigrants from other West African nations. The under-19 team took to Haverford High graduate Bobby Kane, a white kid from Cabrini College, right away.
"It's not always about soccer," said Thomas George, Junior Lone Star's under-19 team coach. "It's about having good people around."
In addition to the NPSL team, Junior Lone Star, founded in 2001, has an under-23 team and the U-19 team that last year won state and regional tournaments and reached the nationals.
Lone Star players have gone on to star at a number of area colleges. Two are playing professionally now in Sweden. The most talented U-19 player, a recent Bartram High graduate, hopes to be the next to turn pro.
If there is a connection to the African teams playing this month in the World Cup, it may be the constant pressure that Junior Lone Star tries to put on opposing defenses.
"I believe in offense," Ali said. "I believe offense is the defense. We try to possess the ball a lot. I play with speed. Let the ball move."
George, who played Division I soccer at Radford University, likes to tell his U-19 players about "the rectangle," or the pitch. Outside that rectangle, the world is different. People have more money, better cars, a better home. "Life isn't fair in all directions," he tells them, except in that rectangle.
"It's about who wants to get out of that field with their pride," George tells his guys.
A refugee's life
As a little boy, Mitchell Torh thought the family canoe ride was a great adventure. He didn't know, he said, that those canoes sometimes flipped and people died in that river.
His family farmed cocoa for generations, Torh said, but as civil war raged in Liberia, food was hard to come by.
"Although we grew our own food, eventually it died because there was no material, no fertilizer," he said. "So we decided to move to Ivory Coast."
In 1993, he said, his mother got lucky, was able to come to the United States, and moved to Brooklyn. Mitchell and his younger brother stayed behind. Two years later, she sent for his brother. By that time, Torh was in a refugee camp in Ghana.
"It was a little city, maybe 10,000 people, mainly Liberians," Torh said. "Apart from hunger, there was always a water drought. There was always malaria. My auntie died from cholera."
Torh is now 27 and a medical technician. He is one of the elder statesmen on Junior Lone Star but may still be the fastest player on the team.
He was in that camp for 10 years.
"I was mainly angry at my mom for not getting me out of there on time," Torh said. "I didn't understand there was a process to it. I couldn't just come to the United States. My dad left. My brother left. I was the last person in Ghana."
He lived with 32 people in a one-story concrete building with five bedrooms, he said.
"I struggled for everything, as far as food or water to drink. You have to maybe go to the bus station and [help] unload [people's luggage for money]. That's what we did for us to survive.
"Of course they cooked some food in the house, but it was never enough. You have to be really, really street-smart."
When he finally rejoined his family, which had moved to Philadelphia, Torh heard about Junior Lone Star. He showed up at this park.
The first person he saw was Thomas George. T-Bo! They just grabbed each other. No words. George had been in that refugee camp, too.
"Oh, my goodness, I couldn't visualize. I'm seeing my friend here in this strange land," Torh said. "Then I saw all of them, every one of them that I saw back home, here."
Lone Star's coach, Ali, had coached at the camp. He had once come to scout Torh at his school within the refugee camp.
There was no need to tell anyone his heritage. They shared it. Thomas George's father was from Ghana, his mother from Liberia.
"My dad actually worked in the Liberian government," George said. "My father was assassinated with all those other government officials. They all ended up dying. At the time, the best option was to come to the U.S."
Ali understood. Nicknamed Abie because his grandmother used to call him Abraham, Ali can tell you about his uncle, sitting right there with the rest of the family, being shot dead in Liberia.
"I had to say, 'I don't know him.' I had to do that. He wanted us to say that," Ali said. "I was young, very young, maybe 9 or 10. I had to deny him. They wanted to know his family. They would have killed us."
No, they don't talk much about the old days.
'The ability is there'
Matt Driver, a former assistant coach with the New England Revolution in Major League Soccer, sat on a wall at Monsignor Bonner High in Upper Darby, watching a Junior Lone Star NPSL game.
"These guys are incredibly athletic, technically gifted," Driver said.
Driver is now president of the Philadelphia Fury, looking to start up in the new American Soccer League, a third-division league.
Climbing the soccer ladder often happens one tier at a time. Driver had a close eye on a couple of players, he said, mentioning a Lone Star forward and a midfielder.
"The ability is there," Driver said. "This is my third time watching them. I think they have huge potential. I've seen some of the younger players beneath them. They've got some incredible players. . . . They're definitely an interesting bunch."
Playing in the NPSL is a stretch for Junior Lone Star's resources, Ali said. In its third season in the league, the team decided to stop chartering a bus as most other teams do, carpooling instead. And it began charging each player $200.
Some players are in college. Some work at airports and at rehabilitation centers. They practice Monday through Friday.
"This is essentially how the clubs started in the last century - the Ukrainians, Germans, Italians," said Mike Barr, director of coaching for the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association, and a big fan of Junior Lone Star. "They got off work in the factories, went to play."
Playing at this level, Ali said, rather than in local men's amateur leagues, gives players incentive to stay at it. The rent for Monsignor Bonner NPSL games is fair, $300 a game, and the priest there understands what they are trying to do, said Paul Konneh, Lone Star's president.
It seems as if officials' calls are always judged through various lenses. If they disagree, is it just a bad call, or does somebody have something against this team of Africans from the city?
Nothing is easy about this venture, the coach said. His own personal dream, Ali said, is to someday go back to Liberia and open an orphanage.
In the previous game, he had been an hour and a half late for his job at a rehab center - he normally works from 11 p.m. to 10 or 11 a.m. He'll catch a few hours of sleep after that.
"My credit is not too good," Ali said. "I move a lot, probably 10 times in the last nine years. Believe me, I don't have a dollar in my account. It's not easy. My blood pressure is high."
What does Ali do that keeps it together here? Torh mentioned the coach's organizational skills, adding that he is a good talker.
"He convinces us to do what is needed, and he shows us love," Torh said. "He's very [devoted]. Whatever he does, he's passionate about it. That actually encourages us."
Torh also said his coach is quite the chef.
"He's a good cook. He's a very good cook - see all these kids around here? At the end of the day, we all get hungry. . . . [He cooks] rice and beans, rice and cassava leaf, pepper soup."
Ali has gotten his own encouragement from higher-ups in the local soccer structure. Charlotte Moran, the late president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association, would say to him, "You stay out here. You promise?"
Ali was at the field at 66th and Kingsessing more than an hour before his own team began assembling for practice. The U-19 team was out there first on that mostly dirt field, with freight trains going by and soccer goals that had no nets.
"Even if someone should come here and say, 'I have a million dollars for you to play for my team,' I would have a hard time doing it," Torh said.
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