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  • Luke Frey-Wedeen, SWB

James’ Inspiring Journey: SWB Oakland Participant Plays for The Town FC at ‘The Soccer Tournament’

James, an SWB Oakland Participant, at ‘The Soccer Tournament’ (TST) in Cary, NC.

Whenever he steps onto the soccer pitch, it doesn’t take long for James’ talents as a technical winger, his wicked speed, and his ‘wand’ of a left foot to shine. And while these on-the-field skills turn heads, it is the off-the-field characteristics of this Soccer Without Borders (SWB) Oakland participant that truly makes headlines. Incredibly smart, warm, and kind, James continually strives to rise above the many challenges faced as a newcomer to the US and has dedicated himself fully to his family, education, team, friends, and the two jobs he works while not in the classroom or on the soccer field.

James, a 19-year-old senior at Oakland International High School (OIHS), hails from the country of Haiti. He joined SWB Oakland in the spring of 2023 after relocating to the Bay Area with his mom and two older brothers. Their journey of displacement from Port-au-Prince began in October 2022. Marked by financial hardship and food insecurity, life has challenged James and his family. Despite these challenges, he finds strength in his mother, whom he describes as his rock, providing him with unwavering love and support. Soccer, which he often enjoyed on the streets with his two older brothers and cousins, is his safe space in his life – a space that gave him confidence, agency, and direction. Reflecting on his passion, James said, “The thing is, if I can find soccer in my life, that’s the only help I need. Soccer is the best thing that can happen to me.”

There is little doubt that James' character, skills, and story have made a positive impact on the local SWB community. This past spring, the opportunity of a lifetime was presented to James by The Town FC, a newly founded professional soccer club in the Bay Area—an opportunity that would elevate both his dreams and the mission of SWB.

On May 31st, The Town FC proudly announced an exciting new partnership with SWB. The MLS Next Pro League club, with its aim to create a vibrant soccer community through innovation and disruption, aligns perfectly with SWB's mission of using soccer as a vehicle for positive change, providing newcomer youth and marginalized girls with a toolkit to overcome obstacles to growth, inclusion, and personal success.

“The Town FC is proud to partner with Soccer Without Borders, an organization that aligns with our core values and dedication to uplifting communities through the power of soccer,” said Benno Nagel, CEO of The Town FC and longtime supporter of SWB Oakland. “This partnership is more than a marketing relationship; it’s a pledge to make a lasting difference in the lives of youth across the globe.”

In a remarkable display of support, The Town FC decided to include an SWB participant in their squad for "The Soccer Tournament" (TST) in Cary, North Carolina. SWB Oakland’s leadership team identified James as a participant who earned this opportunity through his soccer skills and positive attitude. This decision not only provided him with an unparalleled opportunity to showcase his talent and character on a big stage, but also highlighted the profound impacts of SWB's programming at a high-profile event.

TST is a seven-a-side tournament with a $1 million winner-take-all prize, showcasing some of the most elite talents in and around the beautiful game. Among the teams competing were European powerhouses Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, British teams Burnley and Wrexham, the US Women’s National Team, and even teams assembled and captained by legends of the game such as Luis Nani and Sergio Aguero. 

As the plans took shape, the significance of the opportunity became increasingly clear. The alignment of James’ personal journey with the goals of SWB and The Town FC highlighted a path of resilience, community, and the transformative power of soccer. This was not just another tournament; it was a pivotal moment for James, filled with challenges, excitement, and growth. 

Now, let's dive into the day-by-day experiences, emotions, and events that marked James' remarkable journey at TST:

James with Luke Frey-Wedeen, SWB Maryland Program Coordinator.

Day 1: Airport Delays, Unbroken Spirits

Once the idea was posed to James and his family for him to represent SWB as a player with The Town FC at TST, the excitement began to build and arrangements were made for James to fly out to Raleigh, North Carolina with SWB Oakland’s Senior Program Coordinator Eric Cortez.  

They were due to land the eve of The Town FC’s opening game against Borussia Dortmund FC on June 5th, allowing James plenty of time to rest and get to know his team ahead of kickoff. What was meant to be a smooth trip with a single layover, turned into a multi-destination slug across the country. Sadly, due to airline delays and cancellations, they were forced to miss the first game of the tournament. With spirits high despite this misfortune, James and Coach Eric huddled around a cell phone in the Indianapolis airport and cheered on their new The Town FC teammates.

James (bottom row, fourth from the right) with his The Town FC teammates.

Day 2: A Warm Welcome

Finally, James and Eric landed in Raleigh around noon the next day, a mere hours before The Town FC’s all important second game of the group stage against Dueling for Lincoln FC, where qualification for the knockout round could be secured with a win.

Upon arrival at the Athletes Village, James’ maturity was immediately on display while introducing himself to his new teammates and coach. Welcomed with open arms, James felt right at home when donning The Town FC’s jersey which featured the Soccer Without Borders logo front and center. 

Once all the players were kitted up, the team made their way to the practice field for warm ups. “​​I feel good. I feel proud. I feel nervous. I feel ready,” exclaimed James. “I'm going to do what I love to do and have dreamed of as long as I can remember.”

After much suspense, James finally took to the pitch for the first time alongside his new teammates, eager to make his mark. In a nail-biting, physical encounter, The Town FC lost 2-3 with James unable to get his first minutes on the pitch. After parting from the group, James was asked how he felt after the less-than-ideal first day:  “I feel good,” he remarked. “I feel proud to be here. I feel disappointed, but tomorrow is another day.”

James makes his debut with The Town FC’s TST squad.

Day 3: A Town FC Debut

The next day’s game was against another German footballing giant in Bayern Munich FC. It was a must-win game if The Town FC were to advance beyond the group stages. With a 2:30 kickoff in the blistering heat (which was rather comforting to James), a tense first half ended level at 1-1. 

Then, just like that, the moment he’d been waiting for was about to arrive. James was told he would be starting the second half as striker. No more than thirty seconds into the half, The Town FC midfielder Sonny Guadarrama carved a route past two defenders and into a pocket of space created by James’ instinctual movement off the ball, and finished confidently to take a vital 2-1 lead. James showed his energy and hunger to contribute throughout the remainder of the game. 

Following congratulatory words from The Town FC’s Coach Mani, the team made their way off the field to find a swarm of young soccer fans asking players for their autographs. James signed a few shirts, and with a demeanor and a signature ready for the big stage, he carried himself as a true professional.

James was beaming when he got back to the Airbnb and scrolled through messages of support from his family, friends, and the SWB community back home. “They were proud of me,” James said when asked if his SWB teammates back home in Oakland had watched him play. “The only thing they said is ‘you have to play like you always play with us.’”

Day 4: Immune to the Pressure        

After a thrilling 4-2 victory, The Town FC advanced to the round of 16 and James and Coach Eric were invited to do an interview for CBS Golazo. They shared about The Town FC’s partnership with SWB and James’s experience at the tournament. In a situation that would intimidate even the most seasoned of professionals, James conducted himself with the poise and confidence suited for such a high pressure opportunity. 

The battle for a place in the quarterfinals pitted James and The Town FC against Nani FC, a fixture that had everyone stirring. James’ number 17 counterpart on the opposing team was none other than Nani, a four-time English Premier League winner (with a Champions League trophy and Euros medal to his name as well). Many in James’ position would have shrunk to the pressure, but after the resilience built from a childhood fraught with challenges, James took it in stride. Despite everyone’s best efforts, Nani FC showed their experience with a 6-3 victory, knocking The Town FC out of the competition. Even so, heads were held high.

James with Nani, former Man United winger and leader of Nani FC.

Day 5: A Fond Farewell

And just like that, it was time to say goodbye to the team and head back to the airport for James and Eric’s flight home. 

James expressed his appreciation to The Town FC for supporting him through this remarkable experience and was moved by what the elite players he now called teammates had to say about him. 

Although the week was over in a flash, the opportunity to learn from such seasoned professionals like Junior Burgos (El Salvador national team, Toronto FC, Atlanta United), Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union, Kansas City SC), and Travis Bowen (LA Galaxy) was something to be cherished. 

“James is a really good kid with a great skill set,” recalled Stefan Clemens, the team leader of The Town FC’s TST squad. “He’s respectful, positive, and always ready. It’s hard in a setting like this but he has had a couple good moments. Those moments add up. Mostly we’re happy with how he’s integrated with the group and that he feels like a real part of the team.” 

Sonny Guadarrama, who recorded a goal in every game of the tournament, reflected on James’ opportunity to join his team at TST: “I think it’s a really great opportunity for him to play at this level. I think he must have been one of the youngest guys out here and, to be honest, he’s deserved the chance. Not because he’s [a participant of] SWB, but because he’s a great player and a great person.”

James, all of us at SWB are so proud of the young man that you've become and can't wait to see what your future holds. Know that, just like we did at TST, you will always have your SWB family cheering you on from the sidelines.

About the Author

Currently Program Coordinator at our SWB Maryland hub, Luke Frey-Wedeen first became a part of the SWB staff team as a coach in 2019. Growing up in Southeast Asia and gaining extensive experience abroad throughout his life, Luke has witnessed first hand how soccer can bring people together from all walks of life. He is passionate about the SWB mission and believes that there are few things more universally loved than the beautiful game, a game that can break down barriers and create belonging.


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