How Minnesotan Soccer is Shaped and Defined by its African Communities

There is a perception that places like Minnesota do not have deep rooted soccer culture or even a soccer history. One of the keys to this perception is disregarding the thriving soccer culture that exists in and around the full spectrum of Minnesotan people.

For one sign that the people of Minnesota can love the beautiful game as much as anyone else, one can turn to Minnesota’s African communities, where a thriving desire to build clubs, build communities, and celebrate cultures shows that the state already has deeply rooted soccer culture.

A cornerstone of the beautiful game in Minnesota is the Oromo Sports Federation in North America (OSFNA) soccer tournament held annually since 1996, when the first games were held in Toronto with one club, Rissa, coming from Minnesota. The OSFNA, which now holds a variety of events, is a registered nonprofit organization in Minnesota.

The Oromo are a deeply historied people, most of which live in modern day Ethiopia where the regional state of Oromia exists today, along with diaspora communities in countries like the United States. Some reports mark the Oromo, who were independent until the late 19th century, as composing up to a third of Ethiopia’s population. Outside of Africa, the US has the largest Oromo population.

Madda Walaabu and Dire Dawa face off in the 2021 OSFNA final at Osseo High School as the crowd looks on. Courtesy of OSFNA Media.

Despite the challenges 2020 and 2021 brought to Minnesota, the 2021 final drew an impressive crowd to Osseo Senior High School, where Madda Walaabu and Dire Dawa faced off to secure the title. Seattle-based Madda Walaabu, one of the original 1996 clubs, would eventually win the match in an eventful 2-1 win following a week-long tournament.

Safi Geleto of Oromo news and media organization Oromia 11 explains that from the beginning, the OSFNA games have been a powerful, country-touring way for Oromo people to express themselves.

“It was an opportunity for all these young people who had left their country to get together and to play something they know quite well. It was also an event that brought communities together. So every year it kind of moved around from one year to the next. The whole idea is that you would vote on it sort of like for the Olympics.”

Gelato continues to explain that while the sporting side of things is important at OSFNA, there’s something far bigger happening, something that draws unbelievable crowds and attention.

“It is as much a community event as it is a soccer tournament. It is all about getting the community together, celebrating together. It’s about getting the culture together… Believe it or not, these tournaments attract tens of thousands of people. Imagine the Twin Cities getting swarmed over the summer, you know, July, everyone gets sort of submerged into the city for an entire week. Imagine the value it adds to the economy and the vibrancy of the culture. Along with [the tournament] comes the festivals and artists come at that time, and so it really is an opportunity for people to meet, to play.”

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The week-long festivities also provide an important opportunity to local Oromo businesses, who take part in the events and have a unique opportunity to interact with a vast group of people.

“There are many booths that are set up, small businesses set up, and it’s an opportunity for vendors to have exposure to a very large population. Young people bring their friends and I think people get a chance to learn about the Oromo… It’s an opportunity to cheer but it’s also an opportunity to see their friends and family from around the United States and Canada, congregated in one location… There was another huge event in the last couple of days of the tournament, a memorial service going on at a convention center, a Minneapolis convention center… It shows that our community has grown as well. It has grown to the point that this is really becoming something to look forward to.”

The OSFNA tournament has also begun to become a platform for change, with multiple womens teams taking part in the games last year.

“Oromia11 sponsored both of the girls teams because we wanted to make sure that they have significant visibility and that they actually get to be seen so that the community can actually get to support the girls teams as well.”

The impact of the OSFNA games is felt across the North American Oromo communities, who have developed a special connection to Minnesota, a connection that is actually still felt in east Africa to this day.

“Minnesota is very unique because the Oromo community in Minnesota is often referred to as little Oromia, Oromia is our home country back in Africa… on an annual basis, getting together in little Oromia signifies so much… We have an on-air satellite transmission to east Africa, so people back home watch it and get to see what is happening.”

Geleto noted that he expected the 2022 OSFNA tournament to be played in Minnesota.

One of the newer proponents of how all of Minnesota’s communities can impact the game at a high level is Ebusua FC, announced in November of 2021 as the newest Minnesotan member of the UPSL, a high level, nationwide amateur league. Ebusua FC co-founder and Club President Cyrus Wilson confirmed to Sota Soccer that the plan to join the UPSL is still on track for a 2022 debut.

As club founder and president Cyrus Wilson explained, the club was founded to help provide opportunities to local players in Minneapolis, and particularly Coon Rapids, a way to get involved in the game.

“When we created this club it was mostly for fun and to keep fit, until we realized when we played in competitions and were around people with similar ambitions, there was a really big pool of talent that was interested in the game and looking for direction… There were not a lot of options out there for individuals to get the platform they need to show what they’re able to do.”

Wilson also cited the narrow pathways provided by colleges, and the fact many good players don’t get into good collegiate soccer programs, as a reason to take on the project.

“If you’re in college then you can do it in college. If you’re not in college then your options are fairly limited… There were too many people, too many good players without opportunity and I wanted to do something about it.”

Ebusua FC previously played in the Minnesota Recreational Soccer Leagues and other local African leagues. They’ve also done well in local cup competitions, including the 2020 African Cup of Nations Fargo, ND and the 2020 Liga Independiente West African Stars Cup.

Ebusua FC team photo from 2021 Minnesota Fall Cup. Courtesy of Ebusua Football Club.

The club’s name comes from a Ghanaian term rooted in the Akan, or Twi, language for family, an important homage to Wilson’s home nation of Ghana. As he explains, ebusua, sometimes anglicized as abusua, is a reflection of the club’s mission to create and strengthen community on and outside of the pitch.

“We wanted to incorporate the idea of being family in sports and the focus was mainly to trust each other, to be comfortable around each other, and build a bond around each other. Our approach was not necessarily all about the game… we wanted to find a way to get the young individuals that we’re trying to help develop more than just the on-the-pitch skills, we wanted to emphasize teamwork, leadership that can go beyond soccer.”

Ebusua’s obvious challenge ahead of their debut 2022 season is putting together a good roster of players. Wilson explained that the club will look to continue their past methods of gathering local talent, but will also look to open the doors to new options from outside of their immediate area.

“We start with what we know. So in the local league, we’ve seen talent and we have our base… at the beginning it was more about who you know and getting a good number [of people] to get the base started. Since we made the announcement to be in the UPSL, we’ve done tryouts to open the door to anybody who’s interested in learning the game, taking it up a notch… Our goal is to provide a platform and bring in everybody that is interested in taking advantage of it.”

Wilson continued to make clear that while they hope to gather a strong roster, Ebusua will continue to have as much focus on bringing together a group of good people who can be part of a footballing family.

“The goal is to maintain our presence in the UPSL and beyond. The only way we can do that is to take steps toward [those goals]. The preparation we’ve done is to get the boys to gel together and understand our game plan, our strategy, and to understand our identity, how we want to play the game. We’ll focus on that and get the right talent for what we want to achieve.”

It was clear that Ebusua were aware of what challenges awaited in 2022, including a steep increase in the competitive level of their play. Their first UPSL season is likely to bring some tough results, something Wilson says the club is ready to handle.

“Your first year is not going to be easy, you’re going to have a lot of challenges. As long as we have that in the back of our mind and focus on doing the work that we need to do, creating our identity, I think we’ll be fine… Creating an identity in any environment, whether it’s office work or on the pitch, you have to create an environment where people who are working for you, volunteering for you, have a reason to come back. It cannot just be about the game. If you have a better team and you don’t treat people with respect or you don’t give them the attention that they need and they don’t feel comfortable in their skin, being around people that they have not met before, sometimes that’s the easiest way to fail.”

One of the most prominent clubs representing Minnesota’s African communities at the high level amateur level has been FC Minneapolis. While the club drew controversy during the mid-2010’s, during which it spent multiple years playing a series of friendlies across the summer instead of in a league, the City Lions have made themselves a constant fixture in the UPSL.

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Founded by Ugandan-Minnesotan Ian Sendi, FC Minneapolis finished sixth, third, and fourth in its three seasons in the league so far. They also made a deep run in the 2021 US National Cup, their second year in the prestigious amateur tournament that comes with a qualification spot into the US Open Cup.

The City Lions beat the Hayward Wolfpack, Vlora FC, and Milawaukee Bavarian before losing 2-0 to Springfield FC in their regional final, which would have seen them make the national semifinals with a win. 

While the campaign came up short in the end, FC Minneapolis’ history run reflected a club wholly different from the one that struggled against the likes of Duluth FC, FC Fargo, and the Minnesota TwinStars in the 2016 American Premier League (APL) season. These days, the City Lions are very much here to play.

The community connections throughout soccer in Minnesota go far beyond the major amateur leagues. In cases like that of Baraya FC, clubs can have a major presence through lesser known leagues and even one off matches.

The club, which has played in local leagues in addition to friendlies with a variety of opponents, has proven to be a lasting part of the Minnesotan soccer landscape.

Baraya Starting XI from a match in 2020, including Ivan Adika (Bottom Row, second from the left) and Minneapolis City’s Abdallah Bah (Top Row, second from the left). Courtesy of Baraya FC.

Baraya has been home to a vast range of players, including some notable names from the NPSL North. Ivan Adika and Garga Nyuah, part of the Duluth FC squads that won the 2017 NPSL North Conference and 2018 NPSL Midwest Regional titles along with playing for the Minnesota TwinStars, have played for the club.

Whitney and Martin Browne, who both played for Minneapolis City and helped the club to NPSL North Conference titles in 2018 and 2019 before joining Joy Athletic in 2021, have also featured for the side.

There’s some who say Minnesota isn’t a soccer state yet, that the ever-growing fingerprint of Minnesota United is both the limit of the sport’s presence in the state and also not enough to define a culture change. The countless proud trailblazers in the Minnesotan club game, and the crowds packed into Osseo High School Stadium to watch community teams battle for a local, and yet international, title, say otherwise.

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