The state of Minnesota is popularly known as the land of 10,000 lakes, but to a group of Haitian soccer players it's also the land of hot dogs, ketchup and soft drinks.
An Under-15 boys team from L'Athletique d'Haiti recently was in Blaine, Minn., where it took part in the just-concluded Schwan USA Cup, which attracted more than 900 teams from 21 states and 16 countries and was played at the 600-acre National Sports Center. The Haitians were in the tournament thanks to the combined efforts of the LA Galaxy and Sanneh foundations, which sponsored the team. It was among the offshoots of the Haitian Initiative, a joint foundation project which materialized after Galaxy Foundation Director Gloria King and former Galaxy defender Tony Sanneh visited the earthquake ravaged country in March.
Initially, the Galaxy and Galaxy Foundation delivered soccer equipment and supplies to the country, which had been devastated by January's 7.0 earthquake, but the Haitian Initiative will continue to provide youth programming, equipment and aid. It also brought the team to Minnesota to take part in the competition. Among the highlights was their introduction; they were last in an Olympic style parade of teams and the crowd in attendance gave them a standing ovation.
"That was really wonderful," team general manager Stephanie Pereira said. "We weren't expecting that at all. They told us to go in last, and everybody was clapping. They were stunned."
Almost amazingly, the Haitians won their flight. They won two matches, including a 6-2 victory over Bonivital Flames from Manitoba in the final, and tied one other match. It marked an impressive comeback from an earlier tournament in which they lost two matches and won another.
That earlier competition, however, was played under somewhat difficult conditions. The Haitians just had arrived in Minnesota and got no more than four hours sleep before they had to play their first game.
Sanneh said he was impressed not only with the players' resolve but their talent in general.
"I was surprised," he said. "They're very skillful. A lot of them are still really small, and I actually got nervous where to place them in the tournament. But they ended up doing well.
"Their understanding of the game was the most surprising. I did have to help them with the offside trap ... I think their first game there were something like 15 breakaways ... but they really understand how to play. That was the biggest thing."
"Overall," said goalkeeper Pierre Anel, Jr., the captain of the team, "everybody played well. The only thing is we don't like to share the ball enough. Everybody wants to score.
"But overall I'm really proud of the team."
The trip wasn't all competition, however. There was plenty of sightseeing, ranging from a visit to Valleyfair Amusement Park and Soak City in Shakopee, Minn., to a sculpture garden, the new football stadium at the University of Minnesota, swimming in Lake George, a team dinner at a local Cowboy Slims restaurant, barbecues, pool parties and, finally and perhaps fittingly, a much-anticipated bus trip on Sunday to Kansas City for the Wizards-Manchester United friendly.
"I remember when we went through the sculpture garden," King said. "There was one creation that was a giant cherry on a spoon. Another was a swing. The boys were kind of like, 'What is this?' There was all this gigantic stuff. But they're such great troopers ... they were busy every single day and just had fun with it."
The boys also had more than their share of food -- hence the preference for hot dogs, ketchup and soft drinks -- which led to an interesting observation from some of the host families. It wasn't long before they noticed in the beginning the boys were overeating until they realized there was enough food and they could have second helpings or eat again later on.
"They probably weren't getting that much or had that much available to them back home," King said.
Anything that had to do with water also was among their favorites, Pereira said. With water often scarce in their homeland, any chance to do a little swimming was met with understandable enthusiasm.
"They're seeing things they've never seen in their lives," she said. "You would have to see where they're from to really understand that."
Added Sanneh, "You could honestly say these kids probably have done 20 things this week they've never done before in their lives. We let them see different things and give them an opportunity to have a smile and just enjoy themselves.
"You know it's a special moment for them, and you feel good you were a part of that. Every day you go see them, no matter how tired you are, you're going to go home smiling."