2017 Meet the Underdogs: Junior Lone Star’s unlikely journey from West Africa to Philly to US Open Cup

Posted by | May 2, 2017
Junior Lone Star poses for a team photo before their 2017 US Open Cup qualifier against Brick Lions FC. Photo: Junior Lone Star

Junior Lone Star poses for a team photo before their 2017 US Open Cup qualifier against Brick Lions FC. Photo: Junior Lone Star

The US Open Cup is full of unlikely stories. The tournament’s popularity in a given year often hinges on those stories.

Maybe the story is an amateur team beating a pro team, or maybe a last-place Major League Soccer team winning the tournament. In 2017, one team might already be that unlikely story: Junior Lone Star FC.

The unlikely story of Junior Lone Star FC in the US Open Cup is 16 years in the making. The club was founded in 2001 by West African immigrants, most of them Liberians, who fled a series of brutal civil wars in their home country. All the club had at its beginning were 11 players and a name derived from the nickname of the Liberian National Team – Lone Star.

In 2010, Junior Lone Star FC took a major step forward as one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Premier Soccer League (PPSL). Having an established league with an affiliation with the United States Adult Soccer Association gave Junior Lone Star FC regular games, as well as the opportunity to compete in regional and national tournaments.

Just two years later, Paul Konneh III joined the club as its president and shepherded Junior Lone Star through its next big step forward, which was joining the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). For Konneh, joining the NPSL came with high aspirations.

“My goal was to create the brand ‘Junior Lone Star FC,’ a soccer club that won’t just be recognized in the African communities in the United States, but a club that will be respected by all in the United States and around the world,” Konneh said.

Ebere Goodluck of Junior Lone Star dribbles against Brick Lions FC in the 2017 US Open Cup qualifying match. Photo: Junior Lone Star

Ebere Goodluck of Junior Lone Star dribbles against Brick Lions FC in the 2017 US Open Cup qualifying match. Photo: Junior Lone Star

Remarkably, Junior Lone Star FC has achieved so much while fielding teams in both the NPSL and the PPSL. However, the US Open Cup always seemed to be out of reach as they entered every season, only to fall short in their opening game every year they entered except for 2013 when they lost in the state Quarterfinals.

In league play, they have claimed four of the seven PPSL titles and now their player base has grown to more than 70 players, despite struggling to find a place to call home.

The team trains at McCreesh Playground in Philadelphia but rarely ever plays its matches there. By his own admission, Konneh said the park is “dilapidated” and often “doesn’t even have lights when it’s dark.”

Browsing through the team’s home fixtures, one finds games at several different Philadelphia-area high and middle schools.

In attempting to qualify for the US Open Cup, Junior Lone Star FC also had to contend with the fact that much of Philadelphia’s recent history in the Open Cup and qualifying has not actually taken place in Philadelphia. Historic clubs like United German Hungarians and Vereinigung Erzgebirge play in the near-Philadelphia suburbs. Recent Open Cup participant West Chester United is a solid 30-45 minutes from the outskirts of the city. Even the city’s MLS side, the Philadelphia Union, does not actually play in the city, but instead in nearby Chester, Pa.

Because of this dynamic, for years Junior Lone Star FC has played nearly all of its Open Cup qualifiers on the road. This year was no different. In September 2016, the club “hosted” fellow PPSL side Rising Stars FC at YSC Academy Stadium, nearly an hour away from McCreesh. The “home” team won easily, 5-1.

Junior Lone Star defeated the Rising Stars FC 5-1 to advance in 2017 US Open Cup qualifying. Photo: Junior Lone Star

Junior Lone Star defeated the Rising Stars FC 5-1 to advance in 2017 US Open Cup qualifying. Photo: Junior Lone Star

A month later, Junior Lone Star FC was truly the road team, traveling to New Jersey to take on Brick Lions FC. Twice the road side had to come from behind, getting goals from Anthony Allison, Ebere Goodluck and Josh Chelleh in a 3-2 victory.

“Our players admitted that the Lions were the toughest opponents we have ever faced up to this date,” said Konneh. “It was an exciting game from start to end and we worked very hard in that game to get the 3-2 victory.”

At that point, thinking they would have one more Open Cup qualifying match in 2017, the club went on a tear in Eastern Pennsylvania tournaments. Junior Lone Star finished 2016 by claiming Eastern PA’s Open and Amateur Cup tournaments, going 8-0 in the process. And yes, all eight games were on the road.

As happened before the 2016 US Open Cup, the US Soccer Federation canceled the last round of 2017 qualifying, meaning Junior Lone Star FC qualified for the tournament for the first time.

“This was a dream come true for these players,” Konneh said.

And so it should come as no surprise that this unlikely club from Philadelphia is ready and confident as it plays a Premier Development League side in a meaningful match for the first time. The Ocean City Nor’easters await in the First Round on May 10.

“We respect Ocean City Nor’easters a lot,” Konneh said. “We know that they have more experience in this tournament … however, we are going there to win and progress to the next round … Our guys are ready for this challenge.”

If Junior Lone Star FC can clear one more hurdle, the award that awaits is a meeting with professional club Harrisburg City Islanders. The Open Cup Second Round schedule currently has “To Be Determined” as the home site for that potential match-up. It might be the most unlikely of scenarios, but just maybe Junior Lone Star FC could find itself hosting a professional side in the second round of the oldest soccer tournament in the United States.