It's not surprising the three-dozen or so players on the Withrow High School soccer team have been glued to their televisions throughout the 2014 World Cup.
“They’ve been captivated by the tournament just like the rest of the country. They were Team USA all the way,” said Tyler Barrott, the 23-year-old head coach of the boy's team at the Hyde Park school. “It’s pretty much what you’d expect from any high school team, really.”
But there is one thing that sets them apart. Very few of them are citizens of the United States.
“Of the 37 players who've signed up to play soccer in May, only 1 of the 37 was born an American, so 36 of 37 are international,” said Barrott, who is entering his first full season at the helm of the Tigers.
Barrott started off as a volunteer, but eventually became the head coach through was he says were an "interesting series of events."
“I loved this position so much I eventually ended up (through another series of events) working both at Withrow and Academy of World Languages in addition to coaching, so I've gotten to know these students and their families over the past eight months.”
As of early July, the Tigers soccer team is made up of refugees from 15 different countries in Latin America, Africa and North America. The girls’ team doesn't have a single U.S.-born player, Barrott said.
“The majority of our students arrived with Refugee Status Visas from the U.S. government. They’ve had to flee the Malian Civil War, Civil War and General Unrest in Cote D'Ivoire, the Congolese Civil War, and the genocides and civil wars in Burundi and Rwanda, to name a few."
He said those numbers could increase before the start of the upcoming season.
“I'd guess we'd pick up four or five more players over the summer around August, as many families move from abroad to the U.S. during that time.”
There are some 25,000 refugees who call Greater Cincinnati home. They come from places such as Bhutan, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Russia and Iraq after experiencing severe persecution in their homeland.
Barrott said the refugees began arriving in larger numbers in the late '90s and early 2000s, because of various factors, including cost of living and relatives already residing in the region.
"Many of these countries are poor, war-torn, and entirely dysfunctional,” said Barrott who calls his club "Les Tigres Indomitables" in honor of the Hyde Park school's mascot and and an homage to the great Cameroonian team of the 1990 World Cup known as "Les Liones Indomitables."
They were the first African team to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup and many African nations use a similar moniker today.
“One of the players, Alkaly Touré, arrived in the U.S. in August 2013 from Senegal,” according to Barrott, who described a trek that was anything but a simple plane ride across the Atlantic Ocean.
Before even arriving in the Queen City, Touré and his family had to flee from Burundi (genocide and civil war), to Congo (where a civil war soon commenced), to Mali. After a short time there, the family had to leave for Senegal due to civil unrest. Only then was the family able to make its way to the U.S.
“His story is similar to a number of our players who have been shuffled around Africa, spending a significant portion of their childhood in refugee camps or temporary housing,” Barrott said.
Since the program was inaugurated in 2002, the Withrow soccer team has mostly consisted of international students. Providing them with a chance to play “the world’s game” was a way for them to bond with their fellow students, grow comfortable in their new surroundings and start to “feel at home.”
“I think the team has always been heavily populated by international students," recalled Barrott, a Turpin grad. "In the early 2000s, Withrow was split into an International High School and University High School… and the team was created to give these boys a chance to play the sport they’ve loved their whole lives, no matter where they lived.”
The addition of Withrow International saw the majority of ESL resources and personnel equipped to work with international students centered at the Madison Road facility. While the high schools have merged back together that infrastructure still remains largely at Withrow.
Now, most of the refugee students, particularly those on the soccer team, reside with their families in the neighborhoods immediately to the west of the city – Fairmont, Westwood, Price Hill and Millvale. And soccer is helping those places feel a little more like home.
“From learning English to making friends, Withrow and its soccer program have made an immeasurable impact in Cincinnati's refugee community,” said Barrott, who studied political science at Indiana University.
“Soccer means a lot to me because it helps me to get rid of stresses and I have fun playing soccer,” said Senegal native Sileye Fall, a midfielder. “Soccer has made me a better person and an optimist.”
Baboucar Gai echoed those sentiments.
“Playing soccer has made me
a better person, made me have a good resume and experience, and it helps me keep my grades up,” said the forward from The Gambia, West Africa. “Soccer is just the way I live my life.”
In an effort to take advantage of his players’ diverse talents and varying degrees of training, Barrott has implemented a decidedly European, up-tempo style of play that he thinks best suits the athletic skill set of his athletes.
"We do have a unique style. We play a quick, counter-attacking style based on the Norwegian team from the 1990s coached by Egil 'Drillo' Olsen," said Barrott, whose grandmother is a citizen of Norway. "I think we have some pretty quick players who are talented in the air and we relish the underdog role so the Norwegian system fits well."
Even though it didn't display too well during this most recent World Cup, Barrott said he plans to incorporate quick passing schemes taken from the "Ticky Taca" style currently popularized by the famous Barcelona club squad and the Spanish national team.
"It's an interesting mix, but it's a fun, fluid, and dynamic brand of soccer our players love to play and our ever growing fan base loves to watch," Barrott said.
But fun on the soccer pitch can only change so much.
While they now have stable homes and those who aren't yet citizens are on a pathway to becoming one, the life of a refugee is usually neither easy nor glamorous. They often struggle to create new lives, overcome the language barrier, learn a new culture and integrate into American society.
And even though refugees are entitled to some social services, money can be scarce, making things like playing soccer a luxury many can’t afford.
To prepare for the upcoming season in the soccer-heavy conference, the Eastern Cincinnati Conference (ECC), the Withrow squad is getting in as many practices as allowed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
Yet the team is limited by financial concerns that hinder their ability to afford new equipment.
Right now, they only have 23 pairs of cleats, 15 practice jerseys, a couple of mismatched cones and beat up soccer balls. Last season the players often had to exchange equipment with the player for whom they were being subbed.
While Cincinnati Public Schools has supported the Withrow team with “unwavering and dedicated support since the program was started,” Barrott said providing the equipment – from cold weather gear to cleats to shin guards – is the responsibility of the parents or the family. And it’s not feasible for many of them.
"In a sport like soccer in the United States things like shoes, shin guards are the burden of the families to provide. But we want to try to help them out if we can," Barrott said.
Despite having players, some of whom are quite talented, limited resources have led to underwhelming results on the field over the past 11 season.
"I think the program did pretty well when in its first season, but our recent history though has been tough," Barrott said.
Last season the team was 5-11-1, an improvement over the past two campaigns. They went 2-7-2 in 2012 and 3-8-3 the year before that.
In an effort to change that trend and give his kids more of a fighting chance, Barrott launched a social media campaign to help raise $7,500 for the upcoming season.
A video produced by Barrott and his players – "Withrow Soccer: The Story of Les Tigres Indomitables " – made its way onto YouTube in June. (Watch the full video below)
It’s taken local social media by storm.
15 Countries. 1 Team. The 40 players of the Withrow High School soccer team desperately need your support. From cold weather jerseys to shoes tenuously held together by tape, we need your help to compete against other schools at the Division 1 level. Join Les Tigres Indomitables in their 2014 campaign. Join our family and become a crucial part of another great story in Cincinnati.
The local and soccer communities have been so touched by the story of Les Tigres that they raised more than $10,000 for the team, well in excess of the goal posted on their GoFundMe profile . The dozens of donations range from $10 to up $1,000.
The support isn’t just coming in the form of cash, though.
A local soccer-friendly bar, Rhinehaus, held an equipment drive throughout semifinals and final round of the World Cup, according to its Facebook page.
"We're asking our customers to bring us new or slightly worn soccer equipment in exchange for one drink, compliments of us. Equipment needed includes: soccer shoes, shin guards, cold weather gear, and soccer socks,” the post reads. “Thank you in advance from Rhinehaus and the boys and girls of Withrow High School.”
Local minor league soccer team the Cincinnati Saints invited the teams to take part in one of its World Cup viewing parties at Fountain Square, to both cheer on the U.S. men's national team and raise money for their program.
“We like to think the Withrow High School soccer team has become a beacon of hope for a number of refugee students from around the world whose families
have chosen to move to Cincinnati,” said Barrott. "And we're thanking the community for their continued help."
Even though the community’s generosity is helping to open some doors for them, Barrott and his boys know they aren’t going to have anything handed to them.
The attention is also going to help Withrow players get an unlikely chance at playing at the next level, Barrott believes, something that wasn’t imaginable last season.
Despite having physical talent, Les Tigres players are typically limited in terms of their recruiting opportunities, Barrott says, because they get limited exposure during summer camps and club teams because their families can’t afford to send them.
"With most of our players not playing club soccer, which is the main recruiting vehicle college coaches use, we are going to do everything possible to get our kids' names out there to local and regional college coaches," Barrott said, adding that he plans to amp up his team's use of social media
"We're going to do it to help promote our players, some of whom, in my opinion, could definitely play at the next level."
Even though many of the players have dreams of playing in college or even in the professional ranks, they’re not letting that get in the way of their more practical goals.
They’re preparing themselves to do great things long after they put away the soccer ball.
“As far as the purely academic side, our students tend to excel in the classroom despite often having very limited English skills upon arrival,” Barrott said.
This past year each of the seniors on the team accepted college offers. The majority chose to attend the University of Cincinnati, but they received a number of admissions offers from colleges all around the region.
“We partner with a great group of Xavier students to provide tutoring after school for a number of our players,” Barrott said. “Our players have been selected for a number of internship programs and scholastic programs.”
Gai gives the people at Withrow and the Cincinnati Public School system credit for helping to “mold” him into not only a better soccer player, but also a better man.
“It’s made me a better person, made me have a good resume and experience, and helps me keep my grades up,” said Gai who, like any American teen, has lofty goals and aspirations. “I want to go to college to study chemistry, go to the Air Force, and try to be a professional soccer player.”
Of course, a winning season wouldn’t hurt.
Les Tigres begin their season Aug. 27 against Glen Este.