When soccer unites us

They started cutting the trees down in South St. Paul’s McMorrow Park last week and, soon, the chain link fences and backstops that marked a series of baseball and softball fields will go. Then the bulldozers will come in and at some point soccer will replace baseball and softball here.

It’s not entirely a metaphor for the changing culture; the softball fields have been moved to a spiffy spot upstream along the Mississippi River. But it is most certainly indicative of the growing popularity of the sport.

Sure, old-timers might look upon the rise of soccer as a threat to tradition, but baseball hasn’t been the National Pastime in a generation. And there are things that soccer can do for a community that softball and baseball can’t.

Lewiston, Maine, has learned that, the Boston Globe reports today.

It has united a community of 7,000 Somalis and East Africans with the Yankees who once resisted them, it says.

Lewiston’s mayor, Robert Macdonald, once said that the Somalis should “leave their culture at the door,” but now the culture is reinvigorating the community.

A few years ago, whites and black players rarely sat together at practice, the team’s coach, Mike McGraw, says. He thinks a seed has sprouted, though he’s not sure it will grow fully.

“You don’t have to take on the whole world, you know,” McGraw said quietly to Joseph Kalilwa, a 17-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had just tried to dribble through the entire defense.

For some of them, taking on the world is what they know. Many of the Somalis fled a horrific civil war to live for years with their families in teeming refugee camps.

Lewiston — a long-struggling city in remote Maine — became an unlikely destination that offered safety, affordable housing, and low-wage jobs. Word of that spread from early arrivals, and the African immigrant population swelled.

Life can be hard, even here, and the children sometimes struggle to obtain soccer equipment. Some share cleats with their brothers. Others do not have shin pads, so they stuff their socks with newspapers. One player showed up for tryouts with holes in his cleats and peeling soles.

“Ouch; you can’t do that,” assistant coach Dan Gish told the boy.

The next day, Gish handed him a new pair. “It’s like one of your kids,” he said. “Would you let one of them play like that? No way.”

There was only one white starter on the team last year, and he’s graduated.

“They’re just like our brothers, our family. There’s no difference,” said Dalton Wing, a 17-year-old senior, the brother of the goalie who graduated.

“The way the world should get along is the way these kids treat each other,” one coach said. “This is the best place to be a soccer coach — anywhere.”