On the last Friday of May, Bruce Mitchley watched as the dozen or so young men in front of him whipped a soccer ball around a circle to avoid defenders in the middle.
“You've got to move it quicker. Come on, quicker," Mitchley shouted to the first-team squad for GAM United, which was passing the ball on a turf field in Aurora.
At this practice, the team, which mostly comprises immigrants and refugees from Aurora and Denver, was fresh off its greatest achievement. On May 21, GAM United beat FC Boulder 3-0 to win the Colorado Adult State Cup championship.
Now GAM United is only four victories away from being crowned national champions at the U.S. Amateur Cup. The national champion wins $15,000 and automatically qualifies for the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that brings together the top American soccer teams with more local teams like GAM United.
But GAM United is focused on more than just earning trophies. It takes in aspiring stars, many of whom come from lower-income immigrant backgrounds, and aims to transform them into sought-after college prospects and professional players.
"You've got guys trying to make lives for themselves," Mitchley says about the players, who work various jobs to help out their families. "But they also want to be soccer players. And some of them can be professional players."
Nfansu Janneh founded GAM United as a U-23, or youth, team in 2014. As a former soccer star from Gambia, Janneh named the team in honor of his home country. He recruited his first players from a batch that he had seen compete in a local African soccer tournament. Ever since, the team has competed in some of Colorado's top amateur leagues.
According to Janneh, the team has never lacked for talent. But until last year, GAM United players didn't have the necessary structure and discipline to fulfill their potential, says Janneh. That began to change when Mitchley, who hails from South Africa, joined as the team's head coach in spring 2018. Mitchley says that before he started as coach, players typically showed up five minutes before a game and would just kick around balls at practice, so he organized formal practice times and drills.
But some of the team's problems are out of his control. Many of the players work odd hours to help their families pay rent, making scheduling practice difficult. "We have four or five players from last season who aren't playing because they can't get off work," says Mitchley, pointing to a player named Solomon, who arrived to practice a bit late because he had just finished working his job at a warehouse. About an hour into the practice, Solomon left to head back to work.
But there are players, like Inza Cisse, the team's captain for the past four years, whose schedules afford them more balance. Cisse has been working at Lowe's for a little over a month, but can still attend every practice and game.
Like Janneh, Cisse hails from West Africa — specifically, the Ivory Coast. Most of the team's players are from the same region, though some come from East Africa, while others are from the U.S. and Mexico.
Cisse came to the U.S. when he was eleven and became an instant soccer star, playing in the Colorado Rapids youth program and captaining the South High School soccer team. He moved to Illinois after graduating from South, playing soccer for two years at a junior college. He says that he received scholarship offers from some four-year universities but decided to move back to Denver to work and be with his family.
At 24, the Ivorian defender is one of the older players on the team. Most are between18 and 23, though one, Mitchley's son, is fifteen.
Mitchley and the rest of the team's leadership are trying to secure team sponsors to donate money to the 501(c)(3) organization they set up for GAM United. In the meantime, Mitchley covers many of the team's costs out of pocket, and he and the other coaches and team management do all of their work for the squad as volunteers.
The team continues to gain local and even international attention. GAM United recently sent one of its players to try out for a Spanish soccer club, and player Enoch Mushagalusa trained with the Colorado Rapids at a recent off-season camp. He didn't make the final squad, but he's set to attendthe University of South Carolina on a full ride for soccer in 2020. "Enoch is probably the most talented player in Colorado," Mitchley says about his star forward.
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On Sunday, June 9, GAM United will take on Arizona-based Real Jalisciense at a stadium just outside of Albuquerque. If GAM wins that game and then three more, it will automatically be entered into the U.S. Open Cup, which could pit the team against some of the best squads in the country, including MLS teams.
Cisse is champing at the bit to play an MLS team. He thinks that GAM United could beat the Rapids.
Even if the team isn't able to make it that far, the GAM United captain is happy that he and his teammates have formed such a tight bond.
"The fun part about this is all of us seeing each other every day," Cisse says.