Community Pitch

For African refugees, soccer is more than just a game.

Game on.

Initially, the play is sloppy — too much dribbling, not enough defense, no more than two or three successful passes in a row. Despite its pre-game prowess, the Mexican squad seems incapable of putting a shot on net — a nice break for the ACC crew, who otherwise could easily be down 3-0. Then a breakaway: One of the African boys starts sprinting toward the goal, only to be taken down some twenty yards out. It's a foul, a direct free-kick, and Benjamin steps in for the shot. With his hands on his hips, he coolly steps back several paces and then chips a left-footed shot over the wall. The goalie pays the knuckling ball no mind — it seems destined to soar over the top of the goal — but Benjamin has put some wicked backspin on it, and all of a sudden the bottom drops out and the ball falls several feet, dipping into the back of the net, directly over the head of the motionless keeper. Goal.

The sideline explodes. Benjamin's brothers and father cheer loudly; Benjamin sprints all the way back to his own half with his arms spread wide in post-goal ecstasy. The younger players who have somehow managed to get to the complex sprint onto the field to shower Benjamin with praise, and Daniel herds them back onto the sideline. The Africans are up, 1-0.

Out of Africa: Head coach Daniel Smith (left) has overseen the team's growth from informal kick-abouts to a partnership with Hugh Evans (right) and the Colorado Clash.
Mark Manger
Out of Africa: Head coach Daniel Smith (left) has overseen the team's growth from informal kick-abouts to a partnership with Hugh Evans (right) and the Colorado Clash.
Here's the pitch: The team prepares for a scrimmage outside Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Mark Manger
Here's the pitch: The team prepares for a scrimmage outside Dick's Sporting Goods Park.


To see a slide show, click here

Within minutes, though, the Mexican team scores.

At the half, Daniel gathers his team and stresses the importance of passing, how one player cannot do it all and they need to work with each other to patch together a coherent offense. It's blistering hot, in the high 90s, and he assures his players that passing in this heat will make them far less tired. Miraculously, they all listen.

The second-half team is a far cry from the first, with the players moving after they pass the ball, spreading the field out wide to allow more space for the offense to work with, closing the field down on defense. Players are helping each other, and each sub who comes in melds smoothly into the flow. But without warning, the Mexican team puts together a series of crisp passes, then a cross into the box, a shot, a deflection, another shot and a goal. They're up 2-1.

Moments later, an African player is charging straight down the middle of the field when he's taken down in the box and the team is awarded a penalty kick. Benjamin takes the shot. It's a well-hit ball but a little too high, and it clangs off the middle of the cross-bar.

The clock is ticking down against the Africans. They are only playing thirty-minute halves, and this second half has gone on for quite some time. But then Ronaldo manages to steal the ball at midfield. Clad in his favorite long-sleeve Brazilian jersey and red wool headband — heat be damned — he takes off, absolutely smoking the defender who tries to stop him. It's a race now, and as Ronaldo sprints toward the goal, a defender charges diagonally across the field toward him. A quick stutter-step pull-back sends that defender hurtling awkwardly past Ronaldo and then it's just him and the goalie, one on one. The goalie springs out from the net and gets a foot on the ball, which suddenly pops away from Ronaldo's feet toward the center of a now completely empty goal. Hot on Ronaldo's heels is Hussein, who's trailed him the entire length of his run and is now at the right place at the right time. Hussein calmly taps the ball into the back of the net, tying the game 2-2.

Hysteria reigns on the African sideline.

Not two minutes later, the referee blows the whistle sounding the end of the game. Daniel's African players — many having just finished their first organized game ever — walk away happy with a hard-fought tie.

After instructing the boys on how to administer the standard American, good-sportsman high fives, the coaches talk to the team one more time about how much heart they showed today and how impressive an outing this was for their first time together. Behind them, little kids kick the ball around the field.

"Benjamin," Daniel says playfully. "What's up with that missed penalty kick, man?"

Benjamin nods his head, smiles, shrugs his shoulders. He's not going to worry about that missed kick. After all, he scored a ridiculous goal today, and if there's one thing he has learned in his thirteen years, it's to never dwell on the negative and always appreciate the positive.

To find the beauty wherever you can.

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