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At Louisville's Liberty Field, Cultures Connect Over Soccer

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

Every night, dozens of players weave past old, brightly-colored shipping containers to the stadium-lit field at Liberty and Shelby street to play soccer.

The field sits on top of a former vacant lot in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood. The repurposed land is part of the ReSurfaced program, which revives some of the city’s unused spaces. And Louisvillians — from those recently arrived from Kenya to native-born dwellers from the South End — come to Liberty Field to enjoy the game.

“We’re all here for one goal: to play soccer,” said player Mohamed Musa. “You just come and play. We really don’t care who you are or where you come from.”

Soccer has long been known to unite citizens across borders. And the game can have that effect on the local level as well. Many spaces to play soccer exist in Louisville but access can quickly become an issue for some residents. A game that could be easily played back in the home country can be unattainable for some of the city’s newcomers.  

“There are definitely a lot of parks, but the parks don’t all necessarily have lights on at night,” said Rebecca Hollenbach, analyst at the Center for Health Equity. And some of those parks don’t have soccer fields.

“What’s kind of unique about this one is it’s for soccer specifically and there are lights that come on at night," she said. "People will come here at 2 a.m. You can’t keep people away from the field, they love it.”

One of those people is Ahmed Abdi, 26, a truck driver who recently moved to Louisville from Portland, Oregon. Another truck driver told him about Liberty Field. Abdi's first time there was during the holy month of Ramadan.

“He told me about it and we came in here one time at midnight,” Abdi said. “And I liked it here. I’ve been coming ever since.”

Money is sometimes a barrier for some people who wish to play soccer.

“A lot of the soccer leagues are $50 or $60 every eight weeks or so, per person,” said Hollenbach. She also said that many soccer spaces are concentrated in the East End.

Phoenix Hill, east of downtown, is a more central location.

Phoenix Hill started out as a park in the mid-1800s and was once predominately populated by a different set of newcomers: German immigrants. The anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Bloody Monday riots in 1855 began in Phoenix Hill at Shelby and Liberty street — the same intersection where Liberty Field is now. The community once filled with markets, beer gardens and picnics, again hopes to use recreation to draw newcomers to the neighborhood.

Pat Smith is a board member of City Collaborative — the organization behind the ReSurfaced program.  Smith said soccer is a less resource-intensive sport, which makes it more accessible than other sports.

“You need the turf, you need the ball and you’re kind of done,” he said, as opposed to the equipment needed for hockey and football.

Basketball also only requires a ball, but to build an outdoor basketball court may include laying down a slab of concrete, said Smith.

“Soccer is a sport that is really going to bring people together to the city and make them feel at home here in a way that basketball, baseball or football is not going to,” said Daniel Sanders, ReSurfaced Soccer manager.  

Ayub Hussein, 17, is a student at Iroquois High School. Hussein plays basketball and football. He said those sports are cool, but for him nothing compares to soccer.

“The other sports is fun, but soccer goes through your blood,” said Hussein. “It gives you the hype … the hype of happiness and beautiful joy.”

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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