Alcides Santos-Thomas still remembers being jolted awake in the middle of the night by the sound of someone banging on the door of his home in Curitiba, Brazil. He was just 10 years old at the time, but the looming presence of the police officer standing at the doorstep is still seared in his memory 15 years later.
His mother, Apecida, had been hit by a car. She had died instantly. Just a few months prior, his father, Luis, had come home drunk and gotten into an argument with his mother. The two had left the house and continued to fight in the street. His father was hit by a rock as others tried to get involved. Luis was taken to a hospital, where he later died.
At 10, Santos-Thomas was an orphan. He and his siblings were taken to an orphanage on the morning after their mother’s death. They stayed for nearly four years, until a family from Alaska finally adopted them.
The transition wasn’t easy for Santos-Thomas. He didn’t speak English then and had grown accustomed to the warm and sunny weather in Brazil. He had never seen snow, and it was difficult to adjust to the dark and bitterly cold winters in Alaska.
The one place where he felt at home was on the soccer field.
“Just playing soccer and being good at it brought people to me,” said Santos-Thomas, who played soccer at Clark College in Vancouver and professionally in Belize before returning to the Portland area. “People wanted to get to know me, my background, where I’m from, just because the ball talks. That’s how I made friends. It helped me adjust to the community.”
Santos-Thomas, 25, has faced distinct challenges during his life, but the way soccer has enabled him to bridge the divide as an immigrant is hardly unique. Soccer has played a nurturing role in the lives of many of his teammates at International Portland Select FC (IPS), a top amateur men’s soccer club in Portland.
IPS was founded in 1996 by Pat Kirk, a native of Ireland. From the beginning, the team served as a refuge for a lot of immigrants, many of whom were attracted to the high level of play and welcoming culture. The current squad has players from 14 different countries, and many have played at the college or professional level or are still trying to break in to the pro ranks.
“Historically, we’ve ended up with a lot of international players because of their talent and their skills,” IPS head coach Harvey Hurst said. “These are good players that come from all over. We’ve had players from over 20 different countries, at least, during my 10 years managing the team.”
Over the years, IPS has developed into one of the top amateur clubs in the Portland area. It has consistently won titles in the Oregon Premier Soccer League (OPSL) and competed in the Kennedy Cup, a tournament featuring top amateur teams from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It holds three Kennedy Cup trophies.
And IPS is currently one of just 13 remaining amateur teams out of an initial 95 competing for a spot in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the oldest sustained national soccer competition in the United States.
IPS/Marathon Taverna, the official name the club is using for the tournament, will travel to California to face Turlock-based Academica SC in the final qualifying round of the U.S. Open Cup on Saturday. The winner will advance to the first round of the single-elimination tournament and earn the right to compete against professional clubs. This is the furthest that IPS has advanced in the U.S. Open Cup competition and the club is hoping that it can extend its run. MLS teams enter the U.S. Open Cup in the fourth round, and there have been a handful of amateur clubs that have previously made a run to the fourth round or beyond.
“We’ve been waiting so long to reach this moment," said Joaquim Capuia, a defender with IPS. "With the way things are going, I just have a feeling that we can come through and get this win in California.”
Capuia spent the first seven years of his life in a refugee camp in Zambia after his family fled their home country of Angola in the early 1980s due to a bloody civil war. It was in the refugee camp that Capuia started to play soccer. After his family immigrated to Portland in 1990, he would spend countless hours in the yard kicking the ball around by himself. Capuia went on to play professionally in Brazil and Angola before returning to Portland and founding his own youth club, Academia de Futebol Training (ADF). He has competed for IPS for over 10 years and doesn’t plan to call it quits any time soon.
“We’ve tried hard to build a good community,” Capuia said. “When I go to IPS practice, it’s just like I finally get to be free of everything else. All the stress about work, things going on in my life, I can just put that to the side and play.”
With players balancing challenging work schedules and family commitments, and a limited budget for the amateur club, IPS is only able to train once a week. Under the lights at a field in Southeast Portland, the players often break into groups and talk animatedly in multiple languages as they lace up their cleats before practice. But once they take the field, there seems to be a natural bond among all the players on the pitch.
That tangible bond is something that Foday Kabba felt from the moment he joined IPS in 2010.
Kabba’s family fled Sierra Leone during yet another brutal civil war when he was just 14. Kabba still remembers hearing bombs regularly explode near his home, and he knows his family was lucky to get out. More than 50,000 people died in the 11-year war.
Like Santos-Thomas and Capuia, Kabba said that his connection to soccer was crucial in helping ease his transition to the United States and enabling him to better adjust to a new culture and environment when he arrived as a teenager. Kabba, who played soccer at Gonzaga University, doesn’t know where he would be without the game.
He knows that many of the players at IPS — whom he now views as family — feel much the same way.
“Even if we might not speak the same language, we’re all immigrants,” said Kabba, who is now serving in a coaching role with IPS. “We can all relate to each other. Many of us came from either war-torn countries or poverty-ridden countries or tough situations. We know what it’s like to struggle and suffer. We’ve also all come from countries where soccer is the pastime. We find enjoyment through the game of soccer and it has made the struggles in our lives a little bit easier to deal with.”
IPS has started a GoFundMe Page to help with costs associated with competing in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
503-853-3761 | @jamiebgoldberg
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