Philadelphia Unity Cup

Philadelphia Unity Cup: A celebration of the city

Photo credit: Rob Simmons

Lincoln Financial Field may seem like an odd venue for the Philadelphia Unity Cup Championship. The roughly 3,000 people attending the championship event Saturday barely filled the designated seating sections, leaving the vast majority of the stadium’s nearly 70,000 seats vacant. In every corridor, on every side of the pitch, massive Eagles signs and banners still hung, a reminder of the normal occupants’ dominant popularity within the city. Yet, as Saturday’s events played out, it became clear that “The Linc” was not such a mismatch after all.

The day-long event marked the conclusion of the second annual Philadelphia Unity Cup, a World-Cup style tournament, played over several months by Philadelphia’s various immigrant communities. This year’s tournament boasted 48 international teams – including one Refugee Team –  based out of all different neighborhoods within Philadelphia, from Southwest to Northeast. Several events were held on the brisk autumn Saturday, including a youth match, the tournament’s first-ever third place match, a naturalization ceremony, a parade of nations, and ultimately the much-hyped championship match.

Youth match and Third Place match

A youth match between two YSC Academy teams kicked off the day’s events. Above all else, the match provided a fun opportunity for some of the region’s best young players and their families.

The third place match followed immediately thereafter. A new addition to the tournament, this year’s third place match was a showdown between Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Jamaica were certainly the crowd favorites, and the large group of Jamaican supporters cheering their amateur Reggae Boyz on from the stands were not disappointed. Jamaica claimed the third place spot, shutting out Puerto Rico 2-0.

Naturalization ceremony

Perhaps the most unique part of the event was the naturalization ceremony, organized by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In front of an international audience on Veteran’s Day, 27 immigrants from 21 countries across five continents stood on the most iconic field in Philadelphia and took the Oath of Allegiance to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

The ceremony demonstrated an awe-inspiring blend of the city’s diversity and patriotism. “[Philadelphia] has a very diverse population,” says Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, whose office organizes the Unity Cup. “We want to make sure that everyone feels welcomed who is welcomed.”

Hard work and reward played a major role in the ceremony as well. “These people worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get here,” says Kenney. “[Many] probably came from bad circumstances where they were and have worked hard to become Americans, and we want to celebrate with them.”

The “hard work” part will stand out to anyone who takes pride in Philadelphia’s historical reputation as a “blue-collar city,” as so many sports fans throughout the city do. The ceremony, which saw USCIS District Director Michael Borgen administer the oath and Mayor Kenney speak, echoed the hard work and diversity within the tournament’s teams.

Parade of nations

Before the final match of the tournament, the Unity Cup further exhibited the city’s international community, as each team took to the field carrying their country’s flag and their self-made banners. International fans cheered as their countries came out one-by-one.

Most, if not all teams and supporters stuck around for the Cup final. Although green still predominated the stadium, an entire spectrum of colors decorated the stands, as Philadelphians who hail from all over the world draped their native countries’ flags over their shoulders or waved them with excitement in the air – a perfect visual of the city’s diversity. With the energy rising and the temperature dropping, the evening’s premier event was set to begin.

The Championship Match

The atmosphere of the Unity Cup Final between Sierra Leone and Liberia felt like a unique mix between a high school football game and a World Cup final. Family and neighborhood friends chatted and laughed in the stands. Children ran up and down the aisles. Yet the intensity was obvious. Real glory was on the line for Sierra Leone and Liberia, and their supporters, as loud and proud as any fan at an Eagles-Cowboys game, showed it as much as the players.

The teams from the two African nations are both based mainly out of Southwest Philadelphia, where a growing African immigrant population has translated to a growing soccer community in recent years. These two teams know each other well, and referred to each other as “brothers” on the KYW Philly Soccer Show earlier in the week. After a clearly-rehearsed handshake in the circle between a player from each team, the two rivals lined up, and the match was underway.

Much like the team that plays at Lincoln Financial Field on Sundays, both sides played an aggressive, physical, smash-mouth game. Both teams constantly created opportunities back and forth, with Sierra Leone seemingly getting the upper-hand early on, frequently putting balls through a flat Liberia back line. In the 44th minute, the upper-hand paid off. Sierra Leone knocked one in after it bounced around inside the box. The half would end with Sierra Leone up 1-0.

Liberia returned in the second half just as aggressive as in the first. In the 56th minute, one Liberian striker passed it in square at the six yard line, and the other booted it in easily to tie the match.

The game remained back-and-forth still, but Liberia steadily began to show superiority. After several missed opportunities, luck favored Liberia. Receiving a chip into the box, the Liberian striker slipped and fell on top of the ball about 8 yards out but managed to force it into the net as he was getting up.

Finally, Liberia sealed their victory in the 82nd minute, as one man went to the endline with the ball and crossed it in close again – another easy knock-in for Liberia. The final whistle blew, and Liberia, now officially champions, rushed off the field to their supporters in the stands.

“It feels so good,” says Liberia captain Prince Jarbo. “We worked so hard to get here” – there’s that Philly trademark hard work again.

Those supporters attending the tournament weren’t there to route on Messi or Ronaldo. They were there to route on their brothers and sons and neighbors. Liberia won an amatuer tournament, not the World Cup, but talking to Jarbo, you question which is worth more. “This means so much,” he says. “People in other states, people back home were watching the game on Facebook Live… The whole community was supporting us. ”

A Philadelphia Tourney

Nothing screams “Philadelphia” more than the Eagles, and so no place says “Philadelphia” more than Lincoln Financial Field. It is the Philly Sports Stadium. Players and fans alike air those values held so dear by this city there every Sunday.

The Unity Cup Championship was a celebration of sport. It was a celebration of diversity. It was a celebration of working your ass off to reach that purest of honors: victory. And so, in all of these, the Unity Cup Championship was a celebration of the city of Philadelphia itself. Lincoln Financial Field may seem like an odd venue for the Philadelphia Unity Cup Championship, but in fact, it was the only place that could do it justice.

3 Comments

  1. Matt McClain says:

    “the Unity Cup Championship was a celebration of the city of Philadelphia itself.” Good stuff Ryan

  2. Thanks, Ryan for the reports. Always enjoyed reading them and you got this one also spot on.

  3. Great report.
    It was a terrific event, from the kid’s game all the way to the exciting final match.

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