Fourteen-year-old Coris Evens stood in the goal Saturday at the National Sports Center in Blaine, shouting to his 10 teammates on the soccer field. They were in a different country, and the language spoken by their opponent — Canada’s Bonivital Flames — sounded nothing like their own.
But even more than 2,000 miles away from their home in Cite Soleil, Haiti, the game they loved was still the same.
“I’m very happy when I’m playing soccer because it’s the only time I get peace … the only time I’m not doing chores at work,” Evens said through translator Makenzy Francois, manager of the Haitian Initiative soccer program.
The Haitian Initiative team, a squad of 13- and 14 year-old boys who have participated in the soccer program in their home country, is just one of 1,007 teams competing in different levels of the Schwan’s USA Cup held in Blaine July 12-20.
The Cup brings together youth soccer teams from near and far. For the 18 players participating with the Haitian Initiative, it’s their first time traveling outside of Haiti, a poor country that was decimated by an earthquake in 2010.
Tony Sanneh, a St. Paul native and a former Major League Soccer and national team player, looked on as the team played Saturday, glowing with pride as he cheered from the sideline. After all, it had been a long road that brought the boys from the slums to that soccer field in Blaine, the chance to compete and enjoy themselves at their feet.
In 2003, while Sanneh was still playing in the MLS, he founded the Tony Sanneh Foundation, an organization designed to help empower at-risk children through soccer. When he retired six years later, Sanneh began managing the foundation full time.
One of Sanneh’s projects through the foundation is the Haitian Initiative, which, with the help of other organizations, brings soccer and a hot meal to poor children in Cite Soleil six days per week, all while emphasizing the importance of education.
Along with Latitude and Healing Haiti, two nonprofits and sponsors of the program, the Tony Sanneh Foundation began raising funds more than a year ago in hopes of bringing a team from the Haitian Initiative to the United States to play at the USA Cup, a tournament Sanneh himself participated in as a 12-year-old. Sanneh also reached out to the local soccer community, encouraging teams to sell bracelets, T-shirts and bags of coffee.
“They’re in a pretty desolate area,” Sanneh said. “[The experience] allows them to dream and it allows them to go back and tell the story for younger kids to make sure they stay in school and follow the dream.”
While in the United States, the team, which is staying with host families during its 26-day trip, will volunteer with Feed My Starving Children, a Minnesota-based organization that provides the meals they eat after games and practice in Cite Soleil. The boys will also have the opportunity to see a professional soccer game.
But most of their days will be spent on the soccer field.
The match against the Bonivital Flames was the Haitian Initiative’s third win in as many games in the USA Cup. Evens and his team’s defense allowed just one goal in those three contests. The boys dressed in blue and red uniforms — the colors of the Haitian flag — met in a joyous embrace when the team scored its first goal Saturday.
Evens’ pride, however, stems from much more than what he does on the soccer field. Evens is also proud, he said, of becoming the first in his large family to travel to America.
Soccer might have brought them here, but Evens and his teammates will return to Haiti with so much more.
“They have a sense of community and belonging,” Sanneh said. “They learn to be competitive and to fight for what they want, and they develop self confidence, because they try and learn new things every day.”