This will be the biggest year for a small soccer club in the Bronx.
They’re the Lansdowne Bhoys of the New York/New Jersey Cosmopolitan Soccer League and after 15 years of hard graft and, ultimately, some well-honed development both on and off the pitch, it looks like real success is on the way.
It’s not just that they’re riding high at the top of the biggest amateur league in this neck of the woods, they’re doing it on a budget incomparable to that of their competitors, semi-professional clubs such as the NY Greek Americans, the NY Athletic Club and Clarkstown SC Eagles.
Later this year, when the weather finally warms up again, the Irish club will make their first foray onto the national stage, having qualified through the regional rounds of the US version of the FA Cup. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that they will, within a couple of rounds, be taking on the likes of the New York Red Bulls or the LA Galaxy.
It would be an astonishing achievement for a team that has never won the top flight in its own league — although judging by their nine wins and one loss so far this season, they are justifiable favourites for many people to finally rectify that statistic.
The Lansdowne club is based in Woodlawn, a heavily populated Irish area straddling the border of New York City which separates the Bronx from Yonkers to the north. Many of the newly arrived immigrants from Ireland make Woodlawn their first and last stop. They’ll labour and nurse and pull pints in Manhattan but it’s all the way back to McLean Avenue to live the rest of their lives.
The GAA is dominant, of course, but Lansdowne have carved out a niche with generous backing from local Irish business owners like Dubliner Aidan Corr, whose Emerald Tile and Marble company are the main sponsors. William McRory, Colm McCormack, Shay Furlong, Colm Morrissey and long-time former manager Paul Doherty provide the rest of the funding between them.
But although young Irish men and women might be leaving home in huge numbers, only a small portion choose New York and the US thanks to the stricter immigration policies in force. That’s why Lansdowne manager Austin Friel, a former Peterborough trialist who played at Finn Harps in the League of Ireland and Dungannon Swifts in the Irish League, decided it was important to continue the new policy put in place by his predecessor Kevin Grogan, formerly of Manchester United and Millwall: players outside of the Irish community needed to be scouted.
“He introduced a few Americans and a lad from New Zealand and then the standard really started to take off,” recalls Friel. “Then when I took over, I had a friend from the Ivory Coast who gave me some leads.”
A Uefa B coaching badge holder, Friel did most of the rest of his scouting during the popular New York summer competition, the Cosmos Copa, a competition now routinely dominated by African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the city which is proving to be a huge well of untapped talent, supremely able footballers with no access to proper coaching.
Friel convinced a trio of Jamaicans to join Lansdowne and the team has yet to look back. Particularly Dwayne Reid, a technically gifted striker with astonishing ability to punish defenders. He has already netted 23 goals with his two buddies, Sikele Sylvester and Jermaine Russell, scoring 17 between them.
Bolstering Friel’s first XI are former League of Ireland players Craig Purcell and Stephen Roche and a former Gambian international centre back, Emmanuel Gomez, whose MLS stint in Toronto was ended by a knee injury.
The players are compensated and they are given work if they need it but that only goes so far. It’s the winning that has hastened the non-Irish players’ bond with their new team-mates.
“I really believe they should be playing at another level. Sometimes, they’re just a joy to watch. They play on the pitch like they’re three best friends — which they are. I’m looking forward to getting them back at training. They want to be part of a winning team. That’s what keeps them working harder and harder,” Friel explained.
It’s approaching midnight in Derry as we end the phone call. Friel will be spent the early part of New Year’s Eve flying back to New York. Don’t write about me, he asks hopefully. This is about a club which has built itself steadily into the best amateur team in New York City. 2014 will prove that but Friel, whether he likes it or not, will be the man tasked with bringing this interesting group of players over the line.
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