Salone FC a Model Soccer Program in Southwest Philadelphia
By Mike Barr
Driving on an early Saturday evening in late August on I-95 to West Philadelphia, with a poor display by my high school team in a game in the back of my mind; I felt a sense of frustration. The weather was cloudy and muggy as I got closer to Connell Park at 64th and Elmwood. It is a location where I have taught Grassroot’s courses over the last few years and met some amazing coaches. I was attending the final night of summer camp run by SALONE FC.
Arriving at the park, a comforting feeling began to push out the negative thoughts in my mind. I saw over seventy children all with pink shirts with AFRICOM written across the chest. They were laughing and shouting with soccer balls at their feet. Though the grass was overgrown at the park, a rectangular field close to Elmwood Avenue had been cut and lined by the coaches. It really was a haven for children and adults alike within Southwest Philly.
I walked toward the field smiling, because this is children’s soccer at the purist level, led by a hero and his coaches. Before even getting to the field, Foday Turay, the manager of SALONE FC walked toward me and welcomed me with a handshake and a hug.
Foday has a personality unmatched by anyone I know. He is a tall, confident coach with a constant smile who makes everyone feel special. He came to this country from Sierra Leone twenty years ago. Though he played professionally in his home country he told me, “I focused on coaching soccer with neighborhood children and West African adults when I arrived in Philadelphia.”
The camp and training are held throughout the year. This night was a celebration of the last night of the summer camp. Foday explained, “ We are giving the children a three-week break to allow them to acclimate themselves to school. After three weeks we will continue every Tuesday and Thursday evening.”
I was surprised to see the number of parents on the sideline. Foday attributed the turnout to social media and parents recognizing their children are having fun and learning to play in a safe and friendly environment. Treats and drinks are provided at each training session.
He walked me over to two men around my age sitting on the sidelines in chairs.
“Mike these are my two fathers, Stanley and Fofio; they helped me with immigration and settling in Philadelphia. I have tried to follow their example in helping others.”
They are two valuable mentors for Foday, who he still uses for advice and support.
I was introduced to Eric Edi of AFRICOM (The Coalition of African Caribbean Communities). He leads AFRICOM which provides needed financial sponsorship to the program and provided the t-shirts.
Every small sided game that evening was spirited from the youngest to the oldest players. I did not see one player stand around during each ten-minute game. They were all involved with play. The high pace was continuous, as balls were played in from coaches on the flank after a goal was scored or the ball went off the touchline or end line. Other coaches were with the other players working on skills when they were not involved in games.
Foday was in the middle of each game shouting and laughing while addressing individuals and teams. “Play defense, good goal, you can work harder.” He was constantly laughing and encouraging applause from the sidelines.
He addressed each player by their name. On the sidelines players who were not playing were cheering one of the teams on the field. Parents were smiling and encouraging their own children.
As the games ended, Foday gathered all the players in front of the parents and guests. He thanked all the people for their support. He talked about the success of the program this year and thanked his coaches for their constant support and effort through the summer. He told the kids to do well in school. Surprisingly he brought me up front to address the parents.
He introduced me with very kind words. “Mike comes here from Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer. Eastern Pennsylvania has been generous and is a strong partner for us in many of our projects. They provide education for our coaches and deliver equipment each year to assist us in running our program. Let’s give a welcome to this young man.”
As I walked to the front, I heard one of the players behind me say, “He looks kind of old not young.”
I heard a few kids laugh. I began to grin because I found it funny also. I thanked Foday for having me and told the parents, “You are fortunate to have these coaches with your children. Each time I am here I have a sense of comfort and I know this is a special place. Eastern Pennsylvania will continue to work with and assist SALONE FC . I am happy I could be part of your celebration.”
Each player lined up to receive a medal and were greeted with applause. They were treated to pizza and snacks. I approached a mom and asked her what she thought of the camp.
“I couldn’t be more pleased” she said enthusiastically. “I had my son with Lower Merion Soccer Club but I wanted my son to train and play with children of his color. I am so pleased with the support and coaching he receives here.”
Driving home I found myself thinking of the disparity between youth soccer clubs in the Philadelphia area and how every child should have the opportunity to have fun, play and have quality coaching. I am starting to believe things are getting better thanks to people like Foday and his coaches.
SALONE FC is a nonprofit organization committed to diversity, stability, peace, leadership, love, and civic engagement in Southwest Philadelphia. They welcome donations and equipment.