Soccer devotees in the City of Brotherly Love scored some winning goals themselves last week, as the home of American independence vied for the title of being home to the world's most popular sport.
On Jan. 12, Philadelphia was among the 18 cities selected as finalists to host the World Cup, should the contest come to the United States in 2018 or 2022. A few days later, the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer's upcoming Philly franchise, further cemented its roster at the annual conference of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. And Maccabi USA Sports for Israel kicked off its rejuvenated soccer efforts with a brunch for Maccabi coaches, players and alumni.
About 45 people turned out for the Maccabi event, which included brief remarks from current NSCAA president Al Albert, who led the men's Masters team in Israel last summer, for players ages 35 and above.
Looking out at the group, which ranged from teenagers to middle-aged men and women, he recalled the experience of taking "older guys" to Israel who wanted "to keep the dream alive" — a dream, he noted, that some of the young people in the audience were just beginning.
Kevin Friedland, a Maccabi player who's played professionally as a defender with clubs like the Kansas City Wizards and, more recently, with the Minnesota Thunder, pointed out that his association with Maccabi had helped connect him to colleagues he might not otherwise have met, as well as allowed him the chance to play in places like Israel, Australia, Argentina and Chile.
He said that while there is a Jewish presence in the world of professional soccer, "it's probably more in ownership" than on the pitch.
Barry Kaplan, a former Maccabi coach and director of youth soccer clubs in Florida, called the Jewish group's presence at such a major soccer event "huge."
Kaplan, who led the junior girls team last summer, added that there has "been a network of Jewish soccer people for a long time, because Maccabi has been the glue that's kept that network together." He said that the organization plans to have a presence at all future NSCAA conferences to better "reach out to that Jewish soccer diaspora."
In lieu of a soccer field, the brunch and reunion took place in a ballroom at the Marriott adjacent to the Convention Center, as players and coaches from cities as diverse as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and London kicked around stories from their time playing "the beautiful game," as it's known, in Israel or elsewhere.
Seth Roland, a coach for Fairleigh Dickinson University in New York and a men's soccer coach last year in Israel, said that having so many members of the tribe present at such a major soccer conference "just shows that there's a sizable Jewish influence in soccer in America."
Jeffrey Bookman — whose fervor for the game led him to a career as head of international youth football development for Chelsea, one of England's top clubs — noted that for as much as he enjoyed giving back to the outfit that had given him so much, the event was bittersweet.
As the lone Englishman in the room, he was surrounded by several players from the 1981 U.S. men's team — the very same squad that famously surpassed Britain in the Maccabiah games in Israel that year. The English team came in fourth; the Americans won the silver.