Furness midfielder Jose Rodriguez shouts "Aqu�!" to his teammates during the second half of a soccer game against Bodine.
Understanding the Spanish word for "here," the other players kick the ball to the sophomore and the squad plays its way to a 7-0 victory.
Rodriguez, who hails from Puerto Rico, is among a number of international players on the Furness team. Other athletes have come to the United States from Albania, Indonesia and South America.
The teens’ native languages may be diverse, but they present no barrier for coach Paul Letteri when he talks to the team at practice and before games.
"Because soccer is the number-one sport in their countries, it’s universal," the coach said. "If they don’t speak English, they at least understand it."
On Monday, the teamwork translated into a 4-0 halftime edge over Bodine. With a comfortable lead, Letteri instructed his players to work on their passing and ball-handling skills rather than run up the score.
The Falcons scored three second-half goals, but spent most of the time passing the ball back and forth. Sophomore Donald Pick led the Furness offense with three goals. Pick said he didn’t come out for the squad last year because he didn’t know Furness had a soccer team.
The Falcons finished 4-3 last season after graduating the majority of their players from the previous year.
Now, with a multicultural roster — and no seniors — the coach aims to harness the newcomers’ individual skills. Some of the players came to the United States within the last two years, and are still adjusting to the American style of play.
Gersi Mollaj started playing soccer at age 10 in his native Albania, and moved to Philadelphia with his family last year. The junior midfielder is getting his share of playing time against tough Public League opponents.
"The sport is a little harder here because everybody is older," said Mollaj, who speaks Albanian and English.
Indonesian-born Susetia Widi was kicking a soccer ball by age 5. The defenseman arrived in South Philadelphia a year and a half ago, and has acclimated well to his new culture. The sophomore maintains a 4.0 GPA and doesn’t let his height — 5-foot-1 — intimidate him on the soccer field.
"I just like playing soccer, it’s my hobby," Widi said. "The players are better here and bigger."
In recent seasons, it wasn’t uncommon to see an entire roster of Asian players at Furness. The school is now getting an influx of Hispanic students who are showing an interest in soccer, Letteri said. The new players tend to be larger, requiring the coach to order new uniforms. Furness draws students from all over the city to attend its Academy for Law, Criminal Justice and Public Administration.
Letteri runs such an inclusive team that he doesn’t believe in cutting players. The one requirement is students must be academically eligible to play. The open invitation extends to females. All Public League schools that don’t field a girls’ soccer team during the spring season allow female students to play on the boys’ team. Bodine had four girls on the field Monday, while junior Kerri Schmanek played left wing for the Falcons. Schmanek, who plays for a Port Richmond youth team, is hanging in there with the guys.
"At first I was intimidated, but now I am used to playing [with the boys]," she said.
So far, this diverse mix of athletes is holding its own in Division C play. The squad opened the regular season last week with a 2-1 loss to Edison, who dropped from Division B this year. Furness took an early 1-0 lead, but Edison scored on a penalty kick and a mental lapse by the Falcons’ net. The ball was heading out of bounds, but the Falcons ended up saving it by the net. Letteri said the ball should never have been in play.
The Falcons traditionally haven’t been a Public League power in soccer, which is why they are playing in Division C with Bok, Bodine and Edison. Better-performing teams include Bartram, Washington and Frankford, which benefit from an influx of foreign players or strong feeder programs. Letteri, who started coaching the Furness soccer program five years ago, led his team to a 7-3 mark his first year, but given the squad’s current youth, he now aims for .500 or better.
Every Public League soccer team will play 14 games this season, up from seven, with the Falcons playing other Division C teams twice. The local squad will play its next three games at home, including a contest against Bok. If Furness manages to win all three, the season may end up muy bueno.
"If we could win seven games or possibly eight or nine, I would be real happy," Letteri said.