Minnesota soccer team winning with UN-style cast, dialect

When the Como Park (Minn.) High School soccer team takes the field, it bears a slight resemblance to a United Nationals general assembly. Walking out, one after another, are players from Myanmar, Mexico, Thailand and Somalia, among others. The chatter between players doesn't tend to clear things up, either; at any given time, as many as eight languages -- English, Spanish, Hmong, Karen, Somali, Burmese, Thai and Oromo -- can be spoken between the 20 players on the field and bench.

Somehow Como Park coach Eric Erickson is turning his international hodge podge into a cohesive winner. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Cougars' multiethnic and multilingual approach has helped the team roll out to a 7-1-1 start to the 2010 season and the No. 4 ranking in Minnesota's Class A.

"We are living proof that soccer is the international game,'' Como Park senior defender Jon Tetlie told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "This team, with all of these guys from different international origins, has really opened my eyes to the world."

The Cougars play with an international flair, too. Tetlie told the Pioneer Press that he often hears one of the team's midfielders calling for the ball in Karen, a Burmese dialect. Then, smatterings of Spanish and Somalian often come in from Como Park teammates Ivan Carreon Rodriguez and Abdirizak Ismail. The multiple languages are enough to baffle opponents, but with the help of a few distinctly English soccer phrases instituted by Erickson -- "Pressure the ball," "Play it into space," "Switch fields" -- the Cougars communicate with each other just fine.

"We certainly try to celebrate the fact that we represent so many parts of the world, but we emphasize a team-first mentality," Erickson said. "It's a challenge blending all of the elements from the origins into a cohesive unit, but I think we're getting there."

Como Park teammates have also tried to embrace unique parts of each others' culture to increase their understanding of one another. Tetlie said he and other teammates supported the Muslim contingent of Cougars by also fasting until sundown.

Then there was the unique case of Sunday Htoo and Jenny Wah, brothers who hail from a town on the border between Myanmar and Thailan. Neither Htoo or Wah had ever played with shoes before arriving in the U.S., practicing in hard-pact Burmese dirt in their bare feet because they couldn't afford to play in any organized leagues. They saw soccer cleats for the first time after arriving in Minnesota, and despite a rocky period of adjustment, have grown accustomed to them.

"The first time I wore soccer cleats was here in Minnesota," Htoo told the Pioneer-Press. "It was difficult at first, but I got used to it and now I like it much better than without any shoes."

Now, with wins over defending Class A state champion Mahtomedi and another state tournament qualifier, Como Park is well on its way to making a name for itself in a host of different languages. In the process, its team members might make long-lasting unique friends, too, as two Cougars told the Pioneer Press.

"In school, there is a connection with not only our teammates, but with the other students," Tetlie said. "We no longer just walk by each other and don't say a word. We make efforts to say hi and ask others how they're doing. It feels good to that."

Said Htoo: "This is the perfect team. We have highly skilled guys from different countries all over the field."

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