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Soccer in the City

Albany High School’s exciting run in the sectional tournament offers a glimpse into what could eventually lift urban programs closer to parity with the suburbs

by Stephen Leon on October 31, 2013 · 4 comments

(l-r) Middfielders Erick Kwizera and Emmanuel Ishimwe. Photo by Molly Eadie.

Erick Kwizera collected a pass that sent him into the right corner, where he tried several moves to escape the two Bethlehem defenders who had pinned him in. Finally, the junior Albany High midfielder found just enough daylight to fire a dangerous low cross across the goalmouth, which appeared to bounce off an Eagle defender before Erick’s brother, Emmanuel Ishimwe, drove it past the helpless goalkeeper. Albany’s defense then held off a furious Bethlehem attack for 15 more minutes, and when the final whistle sounded, Albany had a 1-0 win Saturday in the Section 2 Class AA quarterfinals, and a ticket to the semifinal matchup against Shenendehowa.

Though some called it an upset—based both on Bethlehem’s higher tournament seed (4 vs. 5) and also a widespread belief that Suburban Council teams are generally superior to those who play in the more urban Big Ten—for many who are familiar with Albany High teams of recent years, especially this year’s, it was more an affirmation of what they already knew: that the Falcons had achieved a level of parity with suburban teams than many outside of Albany had not thought possible.

Whatever Albany does tonight (Thursday) against the top-seeded Shen squad, the win at Bethlehem already seems to have turned more heads than Albany’s performance in last year’s sectional quarterfinals against Guilderland, in which the two teams finished in a double-overtime tie and Albany advanced to the semis on penalty kicks. Once the typical postgame teenage barbs were out of the way (one early post on the Falcons’ Facebook page read, “WHO SMELLS COOKED EAGLE?!?!?!”), the conversations—personal, in print, and online—seemed to take a significant turn toward respectful. Bethlehem fans and players applauded Albany (at least one Bethlehem player personally contacted an Albany player with congratulations). And the forums on capitalregionsoccer.com, which in the run-up to Saturday’s game had been a source of testy bickering between pro-Albany and pro-suburban factions, suddenly seemed polite by comparison.

The bickering began as soon as the tournament seeding was announced. Albany supporters thought their Falcons deserved the No. 3 seed, since they finished as Big Ten champs with the best overall record in Class AA, including the Suburban Council. (They also finished with an outstanding goal differential, and currently have registered the most shutouts—10—in either league.) But Albany coaches and fans also knew that the seeding committee was likely to place them fifth, and that is what happened.

To Albany supporters, the seeding was business as usual for the committee, which they say simply “protects” the top four suburban teams in the hope they will all make the semis. But some suburban supporters on the forums accused Falcon fans of “whining,” and made their feelings of superiority clear:

“If Albany played in the SC im not so sure how “great” they would look they could win some games but honestly the Suburban Council is so much better than the Big 10,” read one post.

“The best soccer in the Capital Region is played in the SC,” read another, “and yes there are weak teams at the bottom of both the North and South Divisions but Shen, Shaker, Guilderland, Bethlehem and even Nisky could challenge for the Sectional Championship and beyond. Unfortunately for Albany playing one or two competitive teams a year in league play and consistently losing to the upper echelon SC teams in Sectionals will never earn a higher seed.

“If they beat Bethlehem then we can continue the conversation; if not case closed.”

And so, the conversation continues.

Coach David Weiss. Photo by Molly Eadie.

As Albany’s seventh-year head coach David Weiss put it: “This was just two teams of equal ability just battling it out for 80 minutes.” In the end, Weiss said, Bethlehem didn’t lose—Albany won.

“I think that kind of opened some eyes.”

In his 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer wrote, “In every other part of the world, soccer’s sociology varies little: It is the province of the working class. [America] inverts the class structure of the game. Here, aside from Latino immigrants, the professional classes follow the game most avidly and the working class couldn’t give a toss about it.”

Whatever has changed in nine years—certainly, soccer is played passionately here by many other immigrants than just Latinos—the most visible American soccer community is largely affluent and suburban. Before the ’70s, soccer was practically hidden from view in the United States; that decade saw both a boom in youth soccer in the suburbs, and a rise in media visibility from the importing of international stars like Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cryuff, and Pele to play in the North American Soccer League. That league eventually folded, and professional soccer here still lags behind many other countries, but soccer in the suburbs took hold for good.

The relative affluence of families playing the sport coincides with another aspect of American soccer that is unique: While most soccer countries develop players through the club model with many players entering club academies as youths, here players tended to play for their schools and in local leagues with, for the best players, the goal of playing in college. That model has evolved significantly since the ’70s, with more opportunities than ever for youth to play at the club, premier and academy levels. But premier clubs and academies are expensive—as are the facilities they require for training and playing games and tournaments. And so the affluent suburbs where soccer first took root still hold the advantage.

“In America, it’s expensive to participate in some of the higher-level soccer development opportunities, and suburban communities generally have a higher percentage of families who can afford that,” says Ron Lesko, director of communications for the City School District of Albany and a longtime supporter of Albany soccer programs.

Weiss mentions longingly the suburban schools that have a well-kept game field plus additional practice fields—not to mention the separate multi-field complexes where their club teams play.

“Come into Albany and find me a grass field that’s playable, anywhere,” he laments.

He cites the practice field adjacent to the school that Albany High sometimes uses, where “we’re picking up beer bottles and smoking paraphernalia before practice.”

And Bleecker Stadium, where AHS plays the majority of its home games, “is a nice facility,” Weiss says, “but it’s a facility that’s used by Albany High football, Bishop Maginn football, and Green Tech football, also by us and the Albany girls’ soccer team. And it gets torn up.” By October, he says, “you can’t make a smooth pass.”

And still, the talent and training of this year’s Albany High squad has them playing good enough soccer to be challenging Suburban Council teams as equals. Can that kind of parity last?

“You’ll have years, or series of years, where you’ll see parity,” Weiss says, “but unless those larger socioeconomic issues are dealt with, I don’t think you’re going to see lasting parity. . . . It takes time and resources and money to develop talent. If it comes back to money, you’re always going to be handicapped.”

“All good players will tell you,” Weiss says, “that going back to their youth, they just played all the time.”

One of the things this Albany team has going for it is that many of the current players have spent hours and hours of their downtime over the past several years playing pickup soccer wherever they can find a space to play, whether on the nice turf fields at Saint Rose’s Plumeri Sports Complex and Albany College of Pharmacy, or in parking lots and on tennis courts.

How do I know this?

Disclosure: Two of my sons, Denis and Jackson Leon, are on the Albany High varsity. I decided to try to tell the story of how this team came together for this special season only after other media didn’t seem interested. Conflict of interest? Yeah, if they don’t win the sectional title, they’ll probably blame me for jinxing them.

On many a spring or summer evening over the past few years, if you drove along Delaware Avenue past the tennis courts at the top of Lincoln Park, you might have seen Denis and Jackson, along with the brothers Erick Kwizera and Emmanuel Ishimwe, and perhaps younger brothers in each family, playing short-sided pickup games on those courts. Today, the two sets of brothers are key components of Albany’s midfield.

Along with the pickup soccer that many of the Albany boys have played incessantly over the years, credit also goes to the steady improvement in the Albany Soccer Club, through which all of the players on the varsity have developed (some now play on premier teams in the area).

Goalkeeper Luca Phayre-Gonzales. Photo by Molly Eadie.

“I think the Albany Soccer Club has had an enormous impact,” says Weiss, adding that suburban schools always had an advantage because they “had functioning clubs that could develop good players,” and lots of them. City schools always had a few good athletes, but without a good club system, the less-talented starters were simply not as well-trained.

Finally, Albany’s one clear advantage, and perhaps a glimpse into the potential future success of urban soccer programs, is the number of talented varsity players with connections to countries where soccer is way of life. Of the usual starting 11, the Leon brothers, backs Jah-heem Lawitz, Ben Wells and Liam Hill, and midfielder/striker Khalid Holtzclaw are Albany natives or longtime residents. Kwizera and Ishimwe are African; midfielder Ali Waleed is Middle Eastern; defender Ar Nwai is Asian. Goalkeeper Lucas Phayre-Gonzales also is from Albany, but his mother is Spanish, and last summer he trained with a goalkeeping coach in Spain.

Some of the backstories are fascinating. While I have not been able to confirm all details, I have been told that Ar Nwai, AHS varsity player Pa Reh, and many other Asians living in Albany (some playing with the Albany Soccer Club) are Kareni refugees whose families were forced from their lands by the Burmese government. The brothers Kwizera and Ishimwe reportedly were carried out of Rwanda by their father during the time of the genocide, and spent years in a refugee camp in another African country. (Their older brother Patrick played for Albany High; Weiss says he grew up playing soccer barefoot and had to adjust to wearing shoes.)

Both Weiss and Lesko give a lot of credit to the sponsors and volunteers who helped get the foreign players—some of whom arrive speaking little English—hooked up with Albany’s soccer system, and in many cases, providing rides to practices and games.

The initial language barriers have not stopped the foreign players from assimilating into the Albany programs. “If they can play, they speak the same language as all of us—the language of the game,” says Weiss.

And foreign players typically bring something with them that can’t be taught in an academy: a passion for the game that practically began at birth. “One of the things they bring with them is the passion, and knowledge, and love of soccer,” says Lesko. “I think no matter where you live, soccer is much more of an intuitive, natural sport in most foreign countries than it is in most American communities. Kids in other countries are born playing soccer in a sense.”

And they bring unique styles of play, which offers Weiss both a challenge and a blessing. “They’re a part of the team, they’re not on the fringes,” he says. You’re accepted for who you are—we honor and celebrate the uniqueness of the players. . . . My philosophy is what worked for the culture of the team last year might not work next year.

“Do you form your system around your players or make your players fit into a system?” he adds, making a sly reference to the notion that suburban programs use players as cogs in a machine.

“I love the opportunity to work with kids from different cultures,” Weiss continues. “I love the patchwork of our team, the diversity. ’Cause that’s what America is—it is not a culturally undiverse society.”

Albany High School and Shenendehowa will kick off their Class AA Section 2 semifinal match today (Thursday) at 6 PM at Colonie High School. The other semifinal, between Shaker and Guilderland high schools, will take place at 3 PM at the same location.