One of the aspects that makes Target USA CUP so unique is the distinct international presence. Players, coaches and referees come from all over the world for the tournament, but there are still teams that create a buzz among the staff.
That is the case with Monrovia Academy, a girls’ 15U team from Liberia and will be the first girls’ team from the country to play in an international tournament. Monrovia is the flagship program of LEAD Africa, a nonprofit that combines high-quality academics with athletic training in order to empower youth.
“Essentially, it’s a leadership incubator,” CEO and Executive Director Will Smith said. “We’re using soccer as an incentive to get kids to do better in the classroom and become the future leaders of the country.”
Monrovia will be participating in the weeklong tournament. They arrived Saturday night to begin a week of firsts for all the players.
“When the plane landed I was a little bit scared because it was my first time riding a plane,” defender Blessing Browne said before adding that it was the first trip to the United States for every girl on the team.
However, the man responsible for the team is American. Smith was a college soccer player at William and Mary doing an internship for the U.S. Embassy when he traveled to Liberia for the first time in 2013. While there, he met Sekou Dgeorges Manubah, a former Liberian National Team player. During the trip, Smith met Liberian soccer legend George Weah through Manubah and played in the national stadium in front of thousands of spectators with some of the greatest African players ever.
Smith returned to the States and completed his Masters in African studies so that he and Manubah could co-found LEAD Africa in 2015. The academy presents kids with great opportunities, both in the classroom and on the pitch.
“My experience with the team and the academy is great,” Browne said. “Playing with my friends motivates me to do well and the school imparts knowledge in me. The school has taught me how to play football and now I’m here playing for them.”
Not all girls get the chance to play sports like soccer in Liberia, though.
“It was very difficult at first because it is difficult for girls to play among boys,” goalie Zeta Kromah said. “So I started playing football at the academy and it taught me the basic fundamentals of soccer … I am very happy to be here representing my academy and my country.”
The institution has expanded steadily. Smith said it will have 105 students in September and that a second academy in Morocco is opening soon. That commitment to growth is what landed Monrovia at Target USA CUP in the first place. Smith said the academy called Minnesota United CEO Chris Wright as part of a fundraising campaign. Wright was interested in LEAD’s mission and eventually the team’s owners committed to fund the flights and the visas.
The players are excited to be in the U.S. and play in an event as big as Target USA CUP, and they will be at the center of the tournament. They will attend Minnesota United’s friendly against EPL side Aston Villa Wednesday and will be the final team in the Opening Ceremony parade before lighting the cauldron to officially begin the weeklong tournament.
With a significant Liberian population in Minnesota – over 35,000 Liberians live in the state, centered mostly in the Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center areas of the Twin Cities – Monrovia makes for an exciting addition to this year’s crop of teams. This is the kind of cool experience Target USA CUP can provide.