The quarter-final soccer match for the 2021 Fall State Cup was about to begin in Murfreesboro, and the team from Memphis had a problem.
Tennessee State Soccer Association rules require players to wear socks that match the color of their jerseys. That helps referees keep watch over a game played primarily with legs and feet.
The team of teenagers from Memphis, Play Where You Stay, or PWYS, wore black jerseys, but only seven players were wearing black socks.
So PWYS, competing in its first state cup tournament, had to start the match on that cold, rainy last Saturday in October four players short. They put seven players on the field instead of the normal 11.
This is a team organized to counter the “pay-to-play” youth sports machine that favors kids with more family resources.
This is a team that includes players from 14 Shelby County schools, with links to 10 countries on four continents.
This is a team of Black, brown and white sons of refugees and immigrants as well as a few middle-class parents.
This is a team of young men who have endured and overcome events exceedingly more traumatic than starting a big soccer match short-footed.
“These kids have met every challenge life could throw at them,” said Jennifer Campbell, a parent who serves as a volunteer team manager. “Nothing fazes them. They have a lot of Memphis grit and a lot of Memphis hustle.”
At the quarter-final match Oct. 30, the Memphis team’s parents and sidelined players hustled to solve the socks situation. Meanwhile, the seven players on the field displayed their grit by keeping the match scoreless for more than 10 minutes.
“It got a little frantic, and we had to innovate, but we got it done,” said Iain Campbell, Jennifer’s son, the team captain and a senior at White Station High.
Someone finally found a roll of black athletic tape. The wrong-color socks were taped over, and the team returned to full strength one player at a time.
Amazingly, neither team scored in the first half.
In the second half, Yoshua Kibasomba, a senior at Central High School, and the most talented player on the team, took a pass, evaded three defenders, and scored the first and only goal of the match.
Play Where You Stay, which finished third in the state’s West division in the opens in a new windowregular season, won the game 1-0, defeating Greeneville, the second-place team in the East.
“Greeneville was very tough, very aggressive, but so are we,” said Yoshua, whose family fled violence in the Congo for a teeming refugee camp in Tanzania where he was born.
“The camp was horrible,” said Yoshua, who came to Memphis with his mother, grandmother, and older brother when he was 11. “This is much better. Everything here is better.”
The “pay-to-play machine”
opens in a new windowPlay Where You Stay was conceived in a minivan in 2018 by two Midtown soccer parents, Jarad Bingham and his wife, Ellen Roberds.
The couple spent a lot of time driving their kids back and forth from Midtown to soccer games at the opens in a new windowMike Rose Soccer Complex near Collierville.
“Two parents, two jobs, three kids, different game times, it just wasn’t sustainable,” Bingham said.
About that time, Bingham read an opens in a new windowAtlantic magazine article about the decline of youth sports in America.
It noted that the share of children ages 6 to 12 who play a team sport on a regular basis had declined to 37%.
More troubling, the playing gap between the richest and poorest households was as wide as a soccer field — 34% of children from families earning less than $25,000, compared to 69% from homes earning more than $100,000.
“Youth sports has become a pay-to-play machine,” reporter Derek Thompson wrote.
Bingham and Roberds realized they were part of the machine.
They knew how much time, money and energy it took to keep their kids in competitive soccer gear and games.
“Our kids were lucky,” Roberds said. “They had two parents with reliable transportation and flexible schedules who could afford the fees. So many children don’t have any of that.”
They also saw how the “pay-to-play machine” creates youth sports haves and have-nots.
“The biggest, fastest, strongest kids with the most resources move up in the quality of coaching and competition,” Bingham said. “The other kids get left behind.”
Bingham and Roberds, both former Presbyterian ministers, were troubled by the disparities.
They’re also social entrepreneurs. In 2016, they formed opens in a new windowDragonfly Collective, a “social development firm” devoted to finding creative and collaborative ways to address social problems.
Their first project was working with Hospitality Hub to develop new services for people experiencing homelessness.
Their second project was turning “pay-to-play” into Play Where You Stay, an inclusive, inexpensive, neighborhood-based soccer program for boys and girls ages 5-19.
The program started with a handful of kids at two Memphis fields in 2018. This year, the program served more than 900 children ages 5-12, and another 100 middle- and high-schoolers on two girls teams and two boys teams.
The program also employs 60 young adult coaches from local colleges and universities who supervise practices and games at a dozen fields in North Memphis, South Memphis, Orange Mound, Midtown and other neighborhoods. Kids play indoors in the winter.
Younger kids pay $10 a week for instruction and practice every weekday afternoon and game days on Saturdays. Older kids on teams pay $100 per season. Everyone plays. No one is turned away for inability to pay.
The program, also supported by grants and donations, provides all equipment. That includes the team’s black and white Nike jerseys. The three yellow stripes on the back represent Black Lives Matter.
“This isn’t about poverty,” Bingham said. “It’s about access and equity.”
“We just had to play our game”
At the Nov. 8 state semifinal in Murfreesboro, PWYS faced Lebanon’s Wilson United, the team that won the West.
Wilson’s only regular season loss was Sept. 19, when they lost 4-1 to PWYS. But in the semifinal, PWYS fell behind early. Wilson United scored on a corner kick and led 1-0 at the half.
“I wasn’t worried,” said Bernardo Ferreira, PWYS program director who helps coach the boys team. “We’d already beaten them once. We just had to play our game.”
PWYS’s game is a marvelous mix of soccer styles, a product of the team’s diversity, which includes its two coaches.
Ferreira grew up playing soccer in Portugal, home of Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world’s greatest footballer, known for his speed, strength and power. Ferreira’s grandfather and father both played professional football.
“Soccer is life there,” said opens in a new windowFerreira, who played soccer for Christian Brothers University and majored in international business. He became the PWYS program director when he graduated in 2019.
Maxi Galizzi, head coach of the boys team, grew up playing soccer in Argentina, home of Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s other greatest footballer, known for his vision of the field, intricate technique, and quick feet.
“In my country, we don’t have to pay to play soccer,” said opens in a new windowGalizzi, who led the University of Memphis men team’s in scoring this season with 22 points. “Soccer is a sport for the poor. We play on the streets in our socks. It’s all we do.” Galizzi, who played four years for CBU, is working on his MBA.
The PWYS coaches admire the powerful creativity of their African players.
They admire the speed, patience and technique of their Hispanic players.
They admire the disciplined tactical skills of their U.S.- and European-born players.
The mix of styles all came together perfectly in the second half of the semifinal.
Yoshua, who scored the only goal in the quarter-final, took a pass near the goal from Josue Jimenez, a Central High senior whose family is from Guatemala. Yoshua managed to hit the ball hard with his right knee. The ball hit the goal post and bounced in.
Maryo Elkeish, a refugee from Sudan, a senior at Kingsbury High, and the team’s best striker, scored the next two goals — the first from about 18 yards out, the second through the goalkeeper’s legs.
Axel Galvez, born in Memphis, a child of Mexican immigrants, a freshman at CBU, and one of the team’s best defenders, scored the team’s fourth and final goal, a chip shot over the keeper.
PWYS won 4-2 and moved on to the finals to face undefeated Chattanooga FC Academy, the western division’s top team and the league’s top-scoring team.
“Our team was super excited,” Ferreira said, “but you can’t get too excited too soon. You have to keep your focus. There’s still one more game.”
“They play with so much heart”
The championship game the next day in Murfreesboro began badly. Early in the first half, a referee called a foul on a PWYS player and gave him a red card.
That meant the player was ejected and the Memphis team was forced to play the rest of the 90-minute game short-handed with only 10 players.
“We weren’t worried,” said Juan Amperez, an immigrant from Guatemala. His son, Charlie Amperez, a junior at Bolton High, and his nephew, Jonathan Amperez, a sophomore at Bolton, both play on the team. “This team plays so hard. They play with so much heart, even with only 10 players.”
Neither team scored in the first half. Early in the second half, Abram Bingham, a junior at Central who was fighting a cold, Jarad and Ellen’s son, and one of the team’s best dribblers, scored a goal.
“It was a great kick from outside the box,” Ferreira said. “The kids went crazy, but we had a long way to go.”
With two minutes to go in regulation time, Chattanooga was awarded a free kick on a foul just outside the box. The kick bounced off another player and into the goal.
The game went into overtime tied 1-1. PWYS still had only 10 players on the field.
“The players were so tired, but they kept pushing,” Galizzi said. “It was inspiring to watch.”
Neither team scored in the first 15-minute overtime.
In the second overtime, Juan Lopez, the team’s goalkeeper, a 19-year-old son of Mexican immigrants and a mechanic who graduated from Douglass High in 2020, made a spectacular game-saving save.
After 120 minutes of play, the game was still tied 1-1. The state champion would be decided in a dramatic penalty shootout.
Each team selected five players who would take turns taking a shot at the goal from about 12 yards out. The goalkeeper was the only defender.
A Chattanooga player kicked first. He took a shot at the left corner of the goal. Lopez, the PWYS keeper, guessed correctly, dove to his right and blocked the shot.
The next four players on each team scored.
Yoshua scored first for PWYS. He looked at the keeper, then looked to his left and kicked the ball to his right. The keeper went left.
“I knew when their first player missed, I had to score,” Yoshua said.
Jancarlos Fernandez, the team’s best passer, a junior at Christian Brother High whose family is from Honduras, made the second penalty kick.
Jonathan Amperez, a talented striker and Bolton High sophomore by way of Guatemala, made the third.
Josue Jimenez, a great tackler from Central High, made the fourth.
The shootout was tied 4-4. PWYS had one last chance to win.
Axel Galvez lined up for the kick.
“He’s always the first kid at practice,” Ferreira said. “He’s a great kid, a hard worker and very quiet.”
Axel looked at the other team’s keeper, then glanced to the left and kicked the ball to the right.
The keeper went the wrong way. Axel kicked the ball into the net. PWYS players exploded. Coaches and parents and small children rushed onto the field.
“Sufrimos, muchachos, pero lo hicimos!” shouted Juancarlos Fernandez, father of Jancarlos. “We suffered, boys, but we made it!”
This weekend, PWYS, the 2021 Fall State Cup division 2 champions from Memphis, will play in the opens in a new windowGermantown Invitational Boys Showcase.
For more information about Play Where You Stay, visit opens in a new windowplaywhereyoustay.org.
Play Where You Stay, the 2021 Fall State Cup Division 2 Champions:
- Franklin Alvarado, Sheffield High junior, Puerto Rico.
- Charlie Amperez, Bolton High junior, Guatemala.
- Jonathan Amperez, Bolton High sophomore, Guatemala.
- Abram Bingham, Central High junior, Memphis.
- Iain Campbell, White Station High senior, Memphis.
- Andy Contreras, Memphis Business Academy junior, Mexico.
- Maryo Elkeish, Kingsbury High senior, Sudan.
- Jancarlos Fernandez, Christian Brothers High junior, Honduras.
- Axel Galvez, CBU student, Mexico.
- Edgar Hernandez, Kingsbury High senior, Mexico.
- Juan Hernandez, Crosstown High senior, Mexico.
- Marc Hernandez, Sheffield High senior, Honduras.
- Josue Jimenez, Central High senior, Guatemala.
- Alkali Jobe, Central High sophomore, Gambia.
- Yoshua Kibasomba, Central High senior, Tanzania.
- Felix Lange, Lausanne High junior, Germany.
- Juan Lopez, Douglass High graduate, Mexico.
- Eric Martinez, Craigmont High sophomore, Mexico.
- Thierry Mukama, Southwest Community College student, Rwanda.
- Cesar Urbina, Memphis Rise Academy junior, Honduras.
- Jacob Yarbrough, Memphis University School senior, Memphis.
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute for Public Service Reporting Memphis.