Philly Unity Cup introduces first-ever women’s tournament

Eight women’s teams celebrating the city’s international communities took part in the inaugural competition. Four will face off in the semifinals Sept. 30.

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A member of the Brazil women's team kicks a soccer ball

A member of the Brazil women's team turns to take on her opponent on the German team.(Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

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Since 2016, the Philadelphia International Unity Cup has offered the city’s many immigrant communities a chance to celebrate their origins with their own local soccer World Cup.

This year, women finally got the chance to compete.

On the back of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, eight teams kicked off the inaugural Unity Cup women’s tournament at the James Ramp Memorial Recreation Center in Northeast Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood.

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“It’s an honor to be a part of the first Unity Cup for the women’s team,” said Sofia Ross, a 20-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia who played for Argentina. “I feel like I need to represent my country, because I’m really proud of our last [men’s] World Cup win, and hopefully I can do the same here for the women’s team.”

Sophia Ross poses for a photo
Sophia Ross was proud to represent Argentina at the first-ever Philadelphia International Unity Cup women’s tournament.(Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

The tournament pitted Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the United States against each other, split into two groups vying for four knockout round spots.

For Brianna Banks, captain and coach of the U.S. team, as well as a coach and intervention and prevention coordinator for Kensington Soccer Club, the opportunity to represent her country added to the excitement of competing.

“It’s just a really great experience for everyone to play for their country and represent where they come from,” Banks said “I’m happy to be representing U.S.A., and to put on for this country.”

Brianna Banks (top row, second from right) poses with other members of the U.S. women's team
Brianna Banks (top row, second from right) poses with other members of the U.S. women’s team after their victory over Honduras at the Philadelphia International Unity Cup. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

Banks also appreciated how the tournament was helping to elevate the level of competition of women’s soccer in the area.

“I actually went out to watch a few of the men’s games, and it was really, really good and competitive. I loved it,” she said. “It brung a lot of people together and I was always hoping that they would do it for the women, because the women play in leagues as well, but it’s not as competitive as the men’s games are here in Philadelphia.”

Players from Colombia and Argentina jostle for possession of the soccer ball
Players from Colombia and Argentina jostle for possession. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

A first of its kind in the nation, the Unity Cup began in 2016. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney conceived of it as a way for the city to highlight immigrant communities through a common passion for the world’s most popular sport.

“We say it all the time, Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. And it’s 100% true,” said Bill Salvatore, the Unity Cup director and the deputy director of programming with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “But within those neighborhoods are really diverse pockets of individuals that have great food, and great culture, and great spirit. And we’re very, very blessed to be able to shine a light upon that.”

This year, the seventh edition of the original tournament fielded 48 men’s teams, representing communities from countries like Albania, Kyrgyzstan, Palestine, Mauritania, Uruguay, and Vietnam.

The concept has even spread beyond Philly, with Boston starting its own version in 2018. A Central PA UNITY Cup started in Harrisburg in 2022, and Lancaster’s version kicked off on Sept. 9 this year. Salvatore said Pittsburgh and Scranton are interested as well, helping to build interest in soccer across the commonwealth ahead of Philly’s opportunity to host FIFA Men’s World Cup matches.

“All this momentum just leads right into how fantastic an event this is going to be in 2026,” Salvatore said. “There’s just going to be millions of people descending upon this city because of what we’re doing, what we will continue to do around soccer. I think that’s really taking a message for the World Cup.”

Philadelphia Parks & Rec Deputy Commissioner of Programs Bill Salvatore (left) poses with one of the match officials
Philadelphia Parks & Rec Deputy Commissioner of Programs Bill Salvatore (right) poses with Alex Selma, one of the match officials during the opening day of the Unity Cup women’s tournament (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

The Unity Cup was highlighted in Philly’s successful bid to FIFA to be one of the 16 North American host cities.

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“It’s a city-run program,” Salvatore said. ”I think FIFA looked at that and said, ‘You know what? Philadelphia has a true commitment to soccer.’”

‘Let’s build it the right way’

Since its creation, the Unity Cup had always been billed as a co-ed tournament, with some women competing over the years. Salvatore said that by 2019 it became clear that the men from some communities would not play against women for cultural and other reasons, so a specific women’s tournament was needed.

The original plan would have launched the women’s tournament in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put that plan, like most other things, on hold. Parks & Rec spent the 2022 season talking with groups and communities about the best way to roll out a women’s tournament.

“When we started this, it was me and an intern running the whole thing,” Salvatore said. “And we bit off 32 countries, 90-minute games over the course of six weekends. We were pretty ambitious and pretty crazy about it. And now I’m kind of like, ‘You know what, let’s not be as insane when it comes to the women’s tournament. Let’s build it the right way.’”

A player for the United States women's team prepares to protect the ball
A player for the United States women’s team prepares to protect the ball against Honduras during the Philadelphia International Unity Cup. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

For a “soft opening” to the tournament, the games were seven-a-side — which Salvatore said the women opted for, to make it easier to field full teams — with 50-minute games taking place on half-sized fields. The number of people working to make it run smoothly has also increased since 2016, with 40-50 Parks & Rec staff assisting outside of their day-to-day roles.

The competition was not without the common pitfalls of rec league soccer though. While some teams brought deep squads with plenty of substitutes, some had to play a woman or two down or right at the full seven, with no bench. A couple players arrived after the match had already started. There were a few forfeits on the rainy matchdays and extremely one-sided scores were capped by a mercy rule. The start of the tournament also had to be delayed by a week, due to a “procurement issue” with the team jerseys.

That said, players and organizers said they see room for growth, hopefully expanding to 11-versus-11 games for 90-minute matches on a full pitch, and adding more teams, in the coming years.

“We have 19 African countries represented on the men’s side, and even with some targeted outreach we still didn’t have one representative from an African nation at the [August 2022] interest meeting,” Salvatore said. “So I think if we crack that nut with some really good engagement … I think we can easily get to 16 to 24 teams for next year, on the women’s side.”

The goalkeeper for the Guatemalan women's team dives to save the ball against Mexico
The goalkeeper for the Guatemalan women’s team dives to save the ball against Mexico. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

“Everybody’s happy, everybody’s excited, and I know we’re gonna have more teams,” said Rosalva Bull, a community outreach worker for Parks & Rec who had been advocating for a women’s tournament for years. “Because they’ve been asking me, ‘Can we join?’ I say ‘No, it’s too late. But this is a good thing that you guys like it, just get ready for the next season.’ And I I know we’re gonna have more teams for next season.”

After all the group matches played out, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and the U.S. advanced to the semifinals. Mexico defeated Guatemala, and the U.S. prevailed over Brazil to book their place in the final, which will be played at the NovaCare Complex on Sunday, Oct 14 at 1 p.m. The men’s final between four-time champions Liberia and Ireland will follow the women’s match at 3 p.m.

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