By Frank Dell’Apa/NPSL.com
A century ago, the Merrimack Valley regularly boasted some of the most competitive soccer in the country. Industry-sponsored teams included the Shawsheen Indians, winners of the 1925 U.S. Open Cup, with a roster featuring future U.S. national team forward Edmund Smith. The Lawrence, Lowell & District Soccer League even delivered a Manchester United-Manchester Light Blues FC derby, across the border in Manchester, N.H.
Decades of soccer decline followed, along with the demise of the shoe factories and textile mills. But the sport was kept alive via ethnic influences and promoters such as John Bertos, who founded the Lowell Astros and won the 1975 American Soccer League co-championship after moving them to Boston.
In recent years, the collegiate scene has numbered championship teams at Franklin Pierce and Southern New Hampshire, plus a revived UMass-Lowell program, and prep schools have featured internationals such as Lawrence, Mass., native Charlie Davies at the Brooks School and Guillermo Cantú (Mexico) at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass.
But many prospects have been overlooked and Siad Haji seemed destined to be among them. Haji arrived from a Kenyan refugee camp as a youngster, played a season at the NCAA D3 level with the New England College Pilgrims in Henniker, N.H., transferred to Virginia Commonwealth, then joined the San Jose Earthquakes as the No. 2 pick in this year’s MLS draft.
The Greater Lowell Rough Diamonds are betting there are more gems awaiting discovery. And history could be on their side.
“We’re picking from a pool of players from all over the world,” Rough Diamonds general manager Cooper Hall said. “Africa, South America – a lot of guys just haven’t had the opportunity a lot of other guys have had. They are talented players and, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks. It’s like our name says, we’re [looking for] rough diamonds. We’ve got to find raw talent and polish it.”
The Diamonds are a successor to the Greater Lowell United team that first competed in the NPSL in 2014. Andrea Gauntlett, a Tyngsboro, Mass.-based entrepreneur and social advocate, took control of the team in 2015 and 2016 and attempted to provide financial stability and sound organization. There was a split at the end of 2016 season. The Greater Lowell United team (GLUFC) remained in Lowell while Gauntlett rebranded the NPSL component, Greater Lowell NPSL (GLNPSLFC) in Tyngsboro.
“I don’t know if starting over is the right word,” Hall said. “We’ve been going through a few re-brandings over the years – Dragons to Greater Lowell – and going through that the team’s been successful. Expectations are really high for this season. We have a chance to be a really competitive team.”
Hall grew up in Utah and performed as a goalkeeper at Louisburg College in North Carolina, moving to New England to play for Daniel Webster College and Southern New Hampshire. Hall joined Greater Lowell in 2016, when the team finished in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Lowell had finished in last place in 2014 and ’15, but became a factor in 2016, concluding the season with a 2-1 win over playoff-bound Boston City FC on a late goal from John Dumbuya.
“It’s really competitive, the most competitive conference in the NPSL,” Hall said. “The Cosmos, Hartford, Boston City, Brooklyn, Kingston. There are some historic clubs that have been around for a long time. There is some history behind some of the rivalries in the conference and having a team with history like the Cosmos – the conference has gotten better every year and I think we continue to get stronger every year.
“Our goal is to win the conference. I think the talent around Lowell has been underestimated. There’s definitely enough talent to win.”
Lowell coach Kobi Okoye, who grew up in Nigeria’s Anambra state and worked in Sunderland, is eager to work on finding players.
“There’s a massive amount of talent in the U.S. but, unfortunately most don’t have the money to play the sport,” Okoye said. “You can bring it down to that rudimentary point. Many talented players don’t have the money to play at the club level, and they fall through the cracks.
“I’m someone who believes in giving chances to players, no matter what level we’re playing at. I’ve given opportunities to them if they had the money or didn’t have the money. I’ve always been able to harness talent and direct them where to go.”
The Rough Diamonds are hoping to settle on a permanent home and will play some games at UMass-Lowell this season.
“It’s great for us, we’ll be right in the middle of where Lowell sports are,” Hall said. “UMass-Lowell, the Lowell Spinners [baseball], Tsongas Arena. That area is where Lowell sports are.”
Andrea Gauntlett followed the experience of her son, Karl, who played for the Greater Lowell team. She became involved in promoting players and now wants to up the ante.
“The first year, I sent four players to the NPSL combine and I used my own money,” Gauntlett said. “I will go beyond to give them visibility.”
Gauntlett witnessed Karl and his teammates attempting to gain the notice of higher level teams and foreign clubs.
“A way to make the difference is play for us,” Gauntlett said. “We see their talent level, they’re passionate about it, they practice every day, wherever there’s a field. They believe in what they are doing.
“Why we are the Rough Diamonds is because that was how they described my son when he started, like a diamond in the rough. If we can help just one player then it’s worth it.”
Photo Credit Carl Gauntlett, Alexander Alzaibak/Fitchburg State College, and Ed Giroux/Our Town Live