The city of Buffalo has experienced quite a drought in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Despite having a team in the first ever National Challenge Cup in 1913/14 it’s been decades since the great Western New York city has participated. The last Buffalo team (according to TheCup.us records) to qualify for the US Open Cup was back in 1968 when Simon Pure SC reached the Quarterfinals. Buffalo has never had a professional soccer team.
The Sahara Gunners FC look to change that and put the city on the American soccer map. The amateur club, founded in 2001, is hoping that qualifying for the 2024 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup will be the springboard to help them do that.
Sahara’s goal is similar to many teams around the country. But what sets them apart is the friends in high places trying to help them in their cause: Players from the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League. With that link being seen even across the team’s chest.
Kovan Dalil took over the club in 2020. His family settled in Buffalo after years of displacement due to conflict in the middle east. After first fleeing the Kurdistan region of Iraq into Turkey, Dahil began playing in the youth academy of Galatasaray S.K.. Eventually, his family received refugee status from the United States and was able to move to Buffalo.
Dalil eventually graduated high school and, having an eye for entrepreneurship, began starting businesses. Initially starting out fixing cell phones and hiring multiple employees, he transitioned into starting his own clothing company, “KM7 Clothing,” in 2018. The soccer influence stuck with him in KM7’s focus. The company specialized with producing athletic gear for everything from individual players to entire teams.
The business continued to grow and eventually began making rounds in local media. An article in the Buffalo News got the attention of many, including members of the Buffalo Bills. Jared Mayden, a safety with the Bills who’d won a national championship at the University of Alabama, saw the article. Coincidentally, and fortunately, he was looking for someone to make shirts for a football camp he was running. The two parties connected and eventually Dalil began providing t-shirts, hoodies, hats or more for the NFL player.
“I met Kovan about a year ago and he has been hooking it up with the gear he has made for us,” said Mayden, who is currently on the Bills’ practice squad. “He definitely has my support for the soccer season.”
Word began to spread through Mayden’s social circle, including some of his Bills teammates. That included defensive back Damar Hamlin.
Hamlin, who was drafted by the Bills in the 2021 NFL Draft, became one of Buffalo’s starting safeties in his rookie season. However, that came to halt in early January 2023 during a Monday Night Football game against Cincinnati Bengals. After making a routine tackle, Hamlin collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. He needed to be resuscitated on the field and transported via ambulance to a hospital. His life was saved by fast working team staff and paramedics and Hamlin has been recovering the last few months. Recently, Hamlin has returned to Bills’ training and is looking to suit up for the first time this weekend.
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“I met almost all of the Bills players through my clothing company,” said Dalil. “They have all been sponsoring our team and supporting me since day one. We have built very strong friendships together and are helping young players to achieve their dreams because Buffalo doesn’t have any pro soccer teams.”
Business was good and Dalil’s networking meant the growth potential was on the rise. Still, he wanted to look towards his other passion: soccer. He had continued to play the game locally in an adult league and still aspired to do more with the sport. Specifically, create a high level team where players from the Buffalo area would have a chance to play. Filling the gap for talented players from places like the University of Buffalo, Buffalo State University and Eric Community College with no place to play locally during school or after they graduate.
Working with his friend Arkan Almadrhie, the two quickly formed a team. The name was easy to figure out. A large number of players on the team were fans of English Premier League side Arsenal FC. They co-opted that team’s famous nickname; “The Gunners”. Meanwhile, one of the team’s main sponsors was a popular gathering place for soccer fans in Buffalo. Sahara Hookah Lounge gave the team the other half of its name.
The Sahara Gunners FC were born.
After launching the team during the COVID-19 pandemic, they joined the United Premier Soccer League for the 2021 Fall Season. It competed at the league’s Division 1 level (the second tier of the UPSL men’s league system). Led by head coach Yaser Karim the Gunners finished with a 3-2-1 record, falling short of the playoffs.
The following Spring Season, Sahara won the division with an 8-2-1 record. Despite the Western New York Division not competing during the fall season, they were able to assemble a team to enter the Open Division Qualifying tournament for the 2023 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
Dalil saw the US Open Cup as a way to raise his team’s profile. They would host Rochester, NY power IASC Boom from the Rochester District Soccer League in their opening game. At Dobson Field at D’Youville University, Dalil would score a first half equalizer off a header, but IASC Boom would score two second half goals to prevail 3-1.
One of the fans watching that game, albeit remotely, was Demar Hamlin.
“I saw on when Kovan scored that goal in the US Open Cup last year,” said Hamlin. “ been telling me a lot about soccer. I love soccer. I sponsor the team because they are the best team in Buffalo.”
Hamlin’s charity, “The Chasing M’s Foundation”, is the team’s main kit sponsor.
The Gunners returned to the UPSL in the Spring of 2023, now competing in the Premier Division (top tier). But the magic from a year ago wasn’t there. According to Dalil, the team dealt with numerous injuries and many of their players were poached by other teams. He says with many key players leaving, the shorthanded Gunners finished in last place in the division with a 1-9-1 record.
Dalil and the Gunners are back in the US Open Cup qualifying tournament. And for the second year in a row, they will host IASC Boom. The game will take place at Crosby Soccer Field in Buffalo on Sunday, Oct. 1. (3 p.m. kickoff)
Dalil is the team’s top scorer, playing at forward. He gets to play alongside his younger brother Omran Dalil, who just graduated from high school and plays in midfield. The team’s goalkeeper Adam Lund was an all-Region selection during his senior year at Pensacola Christian College.
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“We are known because we compete in the US Open Cup,” said Dalil, who has been receiving some personal attention from teams in the Iraqi Premier League. “It is the biggest competition in America right now, especially with someone like Lionel Messi playing in it this year.”
Dalil’s goal is to have the Gunners become a professional team. He believes the city of Buffalo could support a pro team and he believes he is the one who can help bring the city together.
Other members of the Bills are behind the Gunners. Wide receiver Deonte Harty, running back James Cook, and defensive lineman Leonard Floyd. According to Jared Mayden, it’s not a formal sponsorship, but the players help promote the team and contribute to some team costs like field rentals and clothing. With a bunch of NFL players, not many of them grew up as soccer fans.
“But I’m converting them,” said Mayden, who says he plans to make it to the Gunners’ qualifier on Sunday. “Some of them were already fans, but it’s just better now that we have someone new that we can personally support and feel an attachment to the sport of soccer.
Dalil thinks that he is the one to gather the people together to bring professional soccer to the Queen City.
“The club has been great these past few years, but there’s no pro soccer teams in Buffalo,” said Dalil. “Everyone knows me, and I have a good business mindset and with my connections, especially with the support of the Bills players, anything can be done.
That will be our dream if it happens.”
Hamlin, who is hoping to catch the end of the Gunners’ qualifier after the Bills’ home game against the Dolphins, is one of his believers.
“I think soccer will be big in Buffalo because there’s a lot of refugees and young players that are very talented,” said Hamlin. “We need to support these players to help them follow their dreams. The US Open Cup is the oldest tournament in America and I will be very happy for Kovan and the Sahara Gunners if they can qualify for such a big competition.”