The World’s Game is thriving: Austin has fielded players with backgrounds from all over the world

Published 7:13 pm Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Austin boys soccer program has seen a lot of faces from a lot of different places join the squad in recent years.

In all, the Packers have fielded players from at least ten different countries and four different continents — North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. While each player brings their own unique background to the table, they have blended to turn the Packers into a force to be reckoned with in the state of Minnesota. In a season that saw Austin win their first-ever Big Nine title, the squad took third place in the Minnesota Class A State Soccer Tournament last season.

It has also opened a lot of players’ eyes to what life can be like in different parts of the world.

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“It’s pretty interesting. Everybody has their own culture and everybody has their own thing going on,” said Victor Velazquez, who has family in Mexico and will be a senior in Austin this fall. “On the field, everybody brings a little different style in the way they play and I think it adds to the uniqueness of Austin soccer. It’s a beautiful game. It’s something that all of us enjoy and it’s something that takes our mind off of what may be going on in our regular lives. It’s like a second family to me.”

Members of the Austin boys soccer team practice at Wescott Athletic Complex Sunday. Soccer in Austin has brought players together who have backgrounds from all over the world. Rocky Hulne/

There is something about soccer that seems to bring people together. The sport doesn’t discriminate by income and it is wildly popular across the globe. Soccer doesn’t require a lot of equipment and it can be practiced with just a ball and a few players willing to kick it around.

Austin U18 head boys soccer coach Cory Goetz said that the sport offers a great opportunity for players to learn about each other’s lives.

“I think having diversity around you and growing up around people from all around the world is a great experience, because it helps you to break stereotypes,” Goetz said. “It helps you learn how to connect with people that aren’t the same as you and it teaches you to celebrate the differences and learn that there’s more than one way to do something.”

With so many players coming in from around the world, the Packers have been very accepting. Last year, Henry Tolbert, who will be a sophomore this fall, and his older brother Elton, who will be a senior this fall, showed up for captain’s practice as new kids in town, but they had the same shot as everyone else on the team. Both Tolberts ended up playing varsity soccer last fall.

Henry didn’t grab everyone’s attention right away, but he was one of Austin’s top scorers by the end of the season.

“We kind of saw him as a little kid who was kind of annoying, but we got to know him and see his talent,” Velazquez said. “For a kid his age, he’s way beyond anyone else his age. Henry’s at a level that’s higher than some of our older players. He came out and did his thing by scoring goals without being nervous and that’s amazing. In recent years [our team] has been blossoming. We have full homegrown talent and we also have talent coming from other places in the world. You can’t get that anywhere else.”

Austin soccer players Kevin Ortiz, left, and OJ Cham, right, compete for a loose ball in practice at Wescott Athletic Complex Monday. Rocky Hulne/

Austin soccer player David Ruiz, who has family in Mexico, said the team is very welcoming to new players.

“They all find their way to us and they show us what they got. They work hard. We always welcome new players on the team,” Ruiz said. “It’s a universal family. Everyone plays.”

Austin grad OJ Cham, who is originally from Kenya, came back to play on the Austin U18 team this summer before he heads to Iowa Lakes Community College to play college soccer with fellow Austin grads Lonyjera Okal, Abel Gebrekiros and Ochan Ochogi.

Cham said he will always have a tight bond with his soccer teammates from Austin.

“When we come together it’s always fun. It was the best way for us to get to know each other,” Cham said. “We usually don’t hang out outside of soccer, but when we come to play soccer, it’s time to get together and build a bond that lasts forever. We all have different playing styles and we always talk about each other’s culture and it brings us together.”

Igor Blinklow, who was born in Poland, will be a junior for the Packers this fall. He said soccer has helped him fit in, especially when the team has been winning like it has been lately.

“It’s exciting to see our team be successful. It kind of encourages the younger players to develop their skills to be as good as the older players,” Blinklow said. “Soccer is a good way to communicate if there’s a language barrier. I’ve learned about other cultures and foods.”

Goetz said that soccer has certainly helped bridge the gap between players from different backgrounds in town.

“I think soccer is kind of an international language,” Goetz said. “I think it’s a natural connection point for people, even when there’s a language barrier, it can be a language of its own.”

The Packers will begin their fall season captain’s practices on July 30.