It is hard to believe that we kicked off this 96-game, 48-team journey way back on the weekend of September 8. That night, we saw a kick-off double-header, and we swore that we would see the two teams in the late game go deep into the tournament — but that is why they play the games. We saw Puerto Rico start a fantastic run into the semifinals, and eventually the third-place game. We saw Brazil and Ukraine exit earlier than they anticipated. We saw Liberia get shocked in their first match only to regroup to win two in a row and make it into the knockout round. There were five ties, including two scoreless ones, and ten one-goal matches in the first 72. Unfortunately, all the hard work by all 48 teams would not pay off as only 24 teams get to advance.
The play-in round did not disappoint. Out of the eight matches there were two one-goal games and three more that went to penalty kicks. At this point it was all about survive and advance. Going into the round of 16 there were plenty of favorites, most of which were group winners, but that doesn’t matter: they still have to line up and play the game. In those eight matches, five group winners were eliminated, making for some interesting matches in the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals had a number of rematches from 2016, none of which was bigger than Sierra Leone vs. defending champ Ivory Coast. Sierra Leone would outlast them through 90 minutes, two overtimes and in penalty kicks 5-4. The semifinals were set to be played on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in South Philadelphia. Sierra Leone got a scare from Jamaica, but managed a goal in the 89th minute to win 4-3. Liberia continued their redemption tour and easily handled Puerto Rico, setting up an all African, all Southwest Philadelphian Unity Cup championship for the second year in a row.
Championship Saturday was due to be a cold one. The youth game kicked off a little before 2pm with a bright sun in the sky and even brighter young talent on the field. The final score was 2-0, but no one knows who was on what team; they were kids, and they got to represent their countries, their soccer clubs, and their city on the field at the Linc. Next up was the third-place game. The pace in the first half felt more like a championship as the temperature began to drop and no one managed to score. The second half proved to be more excited as Jamaica pulled through with the win. The players were celebrated then ushered off the field as the crack staff quickly set up a podium and chairs for a beautiful naturalization ceremony welcoming 27 new Americans to our country. As they were being sworn in, 48 teams were gathering in the bowels of the Linc for the Parade of Nations. Each team processed out singing, dancing, and smiling while waving their flag and carrying their banner with pride. The final two teams to exit the tunnel were Liberia and Sierra Leone, the two teams everyone came to see.
Most participants stuck around for the match in the cold, holding tightly onto their hot chocolate and snuggled under multiple layers of clothing and blankets. Much like the third-place match, the championship match was at a standstill for much of the first half until Sierra Leone punched in a late goal to take a 1-0 lead into the half. Liberia would not be outdone as they came out firing in the second half, quickly tying the match. Heading into the final 20 minutes, Liberia was awarded a free kick, taken by fan favorite Tben Donnie and putting it on the foot of their striker, who managed to score the go-ahead goal and eventual game winner as he was slipping near the 8-yard line. Liberia would add another goal for good measure in the 80th minute to secure a 3-1 win and a Unity Cup title. The players, who scratched and clawed and persevered through the elements for 90-plus minutes, all embraced and celebrated together, in unity.