'The club has been around since 1975'
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Hello AP readers! It's playoff time in the USL and the NASL race grows tighter by the week. But we're here to talk about something different. Micheal Schieber of Roos FC mentioned Yemen Elite to me during the course of his interview a few weeks back, and we were able to link up and do a fantastic interview covering all kinds of community topics, from pay to play to the need for more community teams. They are entirely non-profit, so please visit yemensoccerclub.com to see how you can support this great organization. Check it out.
Mateo Escobar, team captain and director of WestSide International Soccer; Faress Saleh
Well let's start really simple, help people get to know you a little. What's your name, where are you from, and what's your role with Yemen Elite?
My name is Faress Saleh and I'm from Lackawanna NY. I have managed Yemen Elite's men's team since 2012 and I'm also the Vice President of our local community soccer organization called Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club which runs the youth leagues ages U10 through U17.
The club has been around since 1975
1975 is quite impressive, that makes Yemen Elite forty one years old. How did you come to be involved with soccer in general, and Yemen Elite in particular?
I have played for the Yemen organization since I was kid and love the program. Abdul Noman who is the director/president of the Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club has run the entire age group from youth to men since he started the organization back in 1975. As the years went on and the members increased with the majority of members being youth, he slowly removed himself from the men’s program and allowed us to run it. His focus has always been the youth because he felt they were the ones in need of recreational activities to keep them away from the streets. We are grateful for his endless work as it was the only place for us to play and have fun after school. The men's team has gone through many names and at one point hosted 3 men's team. Today we have two, one run by myself called Yemen Elite and another run by Taha Omar, a good friend of mine, called FC Yemen.
How I got into running Yemen Elite. As I got older and out of shape, playing keeper for all those years took a toll on my body, I loved the sport and when I had time I would watch the younger men play year after year but come up short when it came to the playoffs or championship. I also started to notice the youth in our community were no longer interested in soccer after they finished high school and this worried me. Also with the men’s team not having consistent leadership, always changing from year to year, I felt I had to get involved and shake things up a bit.
You've been involved with Yemen Elite since you were a kid? That's a lot time to stay involved with a program, regardless of whether it's professional or amateur. What about Yemen Elite has kept you involved with the organization for this long? What are they doing right?
The club itself is built on the local community it serves. The location of the field is within walking distance of the neighborhood we all live in. The field is located at 154 Lehigh Ave, Lackawanna NY, and our club located in the same neighborhood at 51 Ingham Ave. If you do a map of this area you will see the houses that surround them. Kids just walk to these locations without parents needing to drive them or drop them off. I actually live right across the street from the soccer field.
The community is growing with an influx of refugees. We do not charge a high cost like other clubs to maintain our operations, and we do not pay ourselves anything. This club is driven by pure volunteering and the love of soccer/community.
Wow, that's awesome to hear. Kind of along the lines of what I'm hoping to do in Kansas City. Now, when you're talking about your neighborhood, is primarily made up of other people from Yemen, or is it a more diverse mix? I know for me, personally, and I'm sure for a lot of other people too, that the Buffalo area doesn't seem like it would be a super diverse town.
Lackawanna is mostly Yemeni around the club but over the past few years we have had an influx o people from Iraq, Syria, and parts of Africa moving into the neighborhood, so it is getting very diverse. I beg to differ about Buffalo. It is becoming very diverse in regards to soccer. The main issue is that soccer in the US and including Western New York is money based and network base, meaning you have to have money to join academies and must have some sort of connection to the higher levels of soccer. You look at other clubs in Western New York, not to name them, but they charge anywhere from 500-3000$ per youth.
There are only a couple of clubs in western new York that are either free or low cost. One being Yemen Soccer Club and the other being Westside International Soccer Club, run by good friends of mine, Amanda Swallow and the current captain of Yemen Elite, Mateo Escobar. Our two clubs cater to inner city, low income and refugee youths. We feel they are very talented and are in need of some sort of guidance through soccer that will enable them to be better soccer players or better individuals in life.
Good grief, $500 to $3,000? That's way too much. How has that impacted soccer in Western New York? Does that create an opportunity for your organization to serve more kids?
There are pros and cons to it. If money is involved you get the best coaches and dedicated individuals who come and provide their services. In retrospect clubs like ours are volunteer based, most likely a parent coach with close ties to the club who cannot guarantee their time and only know so much about coaching. Their only experience is playing soccer a majority of their life. So there are times where we have to limit the number of youth who can join.
Interesting. Let's talk about your local community, Lackawanna. What is it like? How does the community support and respond to your team?
Lackawanna is a suburb on the southern side Buffalo. It was an industrial city back when Bethlehem Steel Corporation was booming. It drew in a lot of immigrants from all over the world. The city was a melting pot of nationalities and culture. Yemeni families emigrated from Yemen and other parts of the country to work there in the early to mid century. After work there was not much to do in the sense of recreation other than soccer which is part of our heritage back in Yemen. It was not until 1975 that the club was formed to get a team to play in the local soccer league of Western NY.
After many years and growing families, soccer was an outlet for the youth and again the close proximity to the field enabled the sport and club to grow. It catered to everyone. The community has always backed the club and attend many games whether home or away. The community is very passionate about it and support us any way they can.
Here is one of our special moments at our field Yemen Soccer Field nicknamed "the Cage" for the high metal fence that surrounds it and has a very intimidating atmosphere for opponents. It's currently going to get a face-lift this year by the city and county that's been 3 years in the making.
I have a YouTube channel with many games and highlights.
The video above if you watch the last 3-4 minutes you will see the passion of our community after winning our first Semi Finals in the championship division.
I also have pictures on my Facebook account under Yemen SoccerClub
I heard about The Cage from Michael over at Roos FC. How would you describe it, and what are the city and county doing to improve it?
The Cage is our beloved field. I truly feel it has a true presence in the sense that opponents talk about it as if were the 12th man. Like it's that one player you hate to play against. We have more wins across all our age groups there than any other field in the league. When teams come to play us they usually leave with a complaint about the field to the league, like the grass was high, or there are missing patches of grass or the fans are to close to the lines, etc There is a long list that I can run down, but they usually blame the field on their loss.
Some of that maybe be true over the years, the field has been over used heavily during the Spring and Fall. It is in constant use 7 days a week by all age groups with both practice, pickup, and games. It wasn't until the North American Yemen Cup of 2012, which our community hosted, that the degrading conditions drew the notice of some politicians who came to watch the games.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Senator Tim Kennedy felt the field needed a face-lift and they knew how important this field was to our community. So they got the ball rolling with the City of Lackawanna to secure funding. We have not played on it since 2013 due to the delays in land disputes with the railroad company or mistakes in field designs. But finally this year all that has been worked out and as of this week, the contract is out for bid and we are hoping they will start construction in the coming week. Improvements will be excavation and mounding the field with irrigation, a water system, and drainage. New fencing to replace the rusted fence (Got to keep that Cage image), and netting to prevent the ball from going into adjacent land which used to be a junkyard.
How many people from the community come out to support the team and give The Cage its intimidation factor?
It can go anywhere from 30 to 100 people depending on the game or who we are facing, like a rival or a derby match.
What kind of crowds do you get for the derby with FC Yemen?
Most of the community. I would say 75+ Usually half come out for FC Yemen and the other for Yemen Elite, but it's a great atmosphere
Sounds like a good crowd. What is it like for the team being able to teach the game to kids, and keep them around through adulthood? Does that create a more uniform structure and atmosphere around the club?
We are able to farm our youth players into our men's team quite easily. Most of our coaches are former club players who went through the whole system, so we have a close bond and uniform structure for training and understanding the game. The youth look up to the men teams and always talk or argue among their peers about which team to play for. We also have the club building were it is open to the community, especially the youth, as a place to hang out after games or after school. It keeps them off the streets and away from harmful activities. We host professional soccer parties when the Champions League or World Cup is in on TV, and have pizza parties and award ceremonies as well as after school tutoring. We also have video game systems for FIFA tournaments and a host of other activities to keep them active.
I'm interested in hearing about this Club Building. How did you make that happen? Was it a complicated process, expensive or relatively cheap? I know of at least one team I've talked to that is interested in doing something like this.
We purchased the building, which used to be a Mexican social club, back in 2000. Like I told you before, Lackawanna was and is a melting pot for immigrants and there was a huge Mexican population here when the steel plant was open. Folks from the community, including myself, gutted the building and raised funds to renovate it to fit our clubs floor plan.
We moved in right away, but the renovation took a couple of years as we pitched in when we had time. The club was is in it immediately. Of course we are a nonprofit organization and used that to help with grants and get support from the county. Getting the building has been a huge part of our success as it gives us a central location to host after game meetings and inform the community of upcoming events. This building is also located in the middle of the community on 51 Ingham Ave, not to far from the field. The building was cheap as it had limited use for anything else, but has served us perfectly for our intended use.
Wow. That's an awesome story to hear about, and touches on something really important that I'm seeing around the country and in the story of Yemen Elite. It seems that having this kind of club is a huge boon to the community. What kind of positive impact do you believe Yemen Elite has been able to have on the community? Are there any success story of positive impact the club has had?
I just want to reiterate that it is a collective of teams like Yemen Elite and FC Yemen which falls under the parent banner of Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club. We as a group provide support whether it is education, financial or event driven like scholarship awards. We as a community also support our players in the youth teams when they play for high school soccer. Our coaches who do the summer duties also perform the same duties in high school. We are there for the kids from birth to post college. There are a number of success stories with our youth who play and earn scholarships to college/universities. We push them first in education before soccer. Soccer is merely a conduit to great education for us. The chances of becoming professional in the US are very low. Not because of skill or talent, it's due to the American Soccer System, which is built on money and either spending thousands of dollars on your kid which many talented kids don't have or getting an agent who knows the system which again cost money. So for us, it's more of a path for them to have a career in life.
Left to right: Mateo Escobar, Trevor Lawler from Amherst and Kopy Amoah-Sapon
If that's your mission statement, I'm sold. Are you guys the only organization like this in Buffalo, or are there others like you?
There is one other organization that nearly mimics us but are still very young as an organization. WestSide International Soccer, who cater to inner city and refugee families in the city of Buffalo, they to are a nonprofit organization. They have been around for about 4 years, and we have a great relationship with them. That's the organization is run by Mateo Escobar and Amanda Swallow. They struggle with funds too and get money through charitable donations.
Is there anything people on the outside can do to help support organizations like Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club and Westside International?
Absolutely, time and money are two important aspects to the success of these types of organization. Time in the sense of volunteering. We both need people who know how to coach, those who are either certified or coach at academies who can help our current staff understand how to conduct a practice, and those who can help our organization connect with higher levels of soccer like colleges, universities, or even PDL organizations. Most of these kids and young men who play for Yemen Elite try to play at the NPSL level.
I myself have built a relationship with FC Buffalo which is our local Semi-pro team. They have provided a great outlet for local guys to take it to the next level. They invite players we would recommend or feel can play at that level. They also ask if there is anything they can do to help. The second need is of course money. Money helps pay for equipment, travel (gas), uniforms, water, field trips, etc. None of the money goes to the staff. Again, we volunteer our time.
If someone reading this, in Buffalo or somewhere else, wanted to contribute financially, how can they do that?
They can send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and or donate via check to Lackawanna Yemen Soccer Club.
Awesome. What would someone need to do to start their own community club, just like this? What are somethings you have to do and somethings you need to avoid?
First and foremost you need people who have a need for a community club. The more people who need something like this the faster it will grow and be established. You cannot be the lone organizer but a contributor to a group. It is a lot of responsibility and if you don't involve people who don't share your ideas or mission it will fail. Start small. You don't need a building, just a place to meet like a house. Another thing that is important to a club is transportation. Over the years we have purchased two fifteen passenger vans that help us with traveling to games, tournaments and even field trips. Avoid over planning or doing more than what the needs are, keep things simple and accept failure when things don't work out. Also, try to involve your local city or town. They are servants to the community and can help out with fields and events or even grants.
Solid advice. I know of one team in Minnesota that's hoping to do something very similar to what you have going on. What's one your biggest successes, and biggest failures, at Yemen Elite, and what did they teach you?
Biggest success would be establishment of the program and seeing the youth go through our system straight into College. I don't have a specific one just a collection of moments that puts a positive face to the club. Anything from winning the Championship to holding pizza parties for the youth. Failures are tough, but it doesn't stop us from continuing our mission. I would think we haven't had any major failures through our years of operation but we have had minor ones that have been re mediated through dialogue and co-operation with other organizations.
Putting players through to college has to be an absolute treat. Let's turn our focus back to the BDSL. Who are your biggest rivals in league play?
We have had many rivals over the years. But I would say our biggest rivals would be the Amherst Sharpshooters. I know i speak for both teams when I say we have great respect for each others clubs in the sense of competition and talent. We have gone back and forth over the years playing tight games and even faced each other in the Finals, each of us taking one from the other. They won the 1st Division Championship in 2011, both our teams got promoted and then we won the Championship over them in 2013. We have both been in the Premier Dvision for the past 3 years and they have beat us the first two years in regular competition while we won this year. They are also a solid club like ours.
How many trophies has Yemen Elite won in its history?
It's hard to count in all competitions. But in BDSL the club has won 3 cups. 2 by FC Yemen and 1 by Yemen Elite. We also participate in North American Yemen Cup which has been around since 1980. Were we rotate host cities like Lackawanna, Toronto, ON, Ottawa, ON, Detroit and Hamtramck, MI. We have a total of 5 from there. The youth leagues in our club run by Noman Abdulsalam have won countless trophies in all age groups. We currently have a trophy case in our club that is full and we store the rest of the trophies in another room in the club.
That's incredible. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
Premier League. Love The REDS. Been a Liverpool fans for longtime.
Favorite player, one past, one present.
So hard. I admire Gerrad, but my favorite of all time is Zidane. Present would be Coutinho.
What are three books, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend?
I would recommend the only book I have been reading since youth that has shaped me into the person I am today. It has guided me in every aspect in my life to do good, help others and not judge. And that book is the Quran.
Would you rather attend the World Cup, Euros, or Asian Cup?
Euros for sure.
Last question for the interview, and also an opportunity for you to make your closing statement. What would you like to say to the people readings this about why they should get out there and support not just their local team, but local organizations, like Yemen Elite?
Without local organization like ours there will be a huge negative impact on the youth and community at large. Without local organization like ours the youth will find other things that will fill their time, things like drugs and criminal behaviors. Without local organization you don't have a big brother/sister role model system. We do this for the future of our society.
Fantastic close. Faress, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can click here to Follow AP on Twitter, or here to Like AP on Facebook. The easiest way to make sure you never miss an interview, and get to read interviews before everyone, click here and sign up for the Newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. AP can't accomplish the goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.