Different cultures blend together to help Westside soccer thrive



While world leaders are always trying to find a way to broker peace, Westside’s soccer team might have the blueprint for success.

The Patriots feature players from around the world and have managed to overcome cultural differences to build a championship core that has won back-to-back region crowns.

The team includes four Nigerian-born players and one player from Spain. Senior midfielder Isaac Oluwasakin, the Region 3-AA Player of the Year, said the team’s diversity enhances the experience.

“It’s pretty groovy to experience all the different cultures,” he said. “To play with someone from Spain gives us an entirely different look out on the field. We learn more about that style of play from (him) every day.”

Sophomore midfielder Gonzalo Banon, of Spain, who has only been in America for eight months, said the team has made his transition easier than anticipated.

“When I first got here, I couldn’t understand anything. I would just follow people and say yes all of the time,” Banon said. “Soccer helped me learn the language. I can understand almost everything now.”

Banon earned honorable mention in the region. He said coming to a country where the sport isn’t as popular gives him an opportunity to help the team in multiple areas.

“It’s very different,” he said. “In Spain, soccer is the main sport. I feel like I know a little more of it because of that. I try to use what I know from there to help the team here.”

Right midfielder Israel Oluwasakin, Isaac’s younger brother, also garnered an honorable mention.

His transition to the U.S. was rough even without the language barrier.

“It was really tough when my brother and I first got here,” Israel said. “I built everything I know about America around soccer. Even though English is the primary language in Nigeria, it was my first step towards learning American culture.”

Senior forward Keaton Craw joined Oluwasakin in earning first-team honors. Craw also doubles as the football team’s kicker. He said being on a team with players from different regions of the world gives him an opportunity to explore the strengths of the cultures.

“Nigerian players use speed and force, while players from Spain rely heavily on skill.” Craw said. “It’s cool to have teammates from other parts of the world. At first, it was tough trying to learn different accents and styles of play, but in the game those differences give us an advantage.”

The team finished 6-0 in the region for its second conference title in as many years. The team was eliminated in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

Westside coach Jamie Barbenec said with soccer as the catalyst, he hopes to help all of his players build a foundation for their future.

“I’ve learned that when you mesh players from Augusta with players from around the world, you can sit back and let it grow naturally,” Barbenec said. “It’s an adjustment for them, but I want to teach them life skills. This game is about teaching sportsmanship, class and having fun.”

The next step begins Wednesday when Westside plays host to Cook County at 5 p.m. in the first round of the state playoffs.

“Having my brother has made the transition here much smoother, especially with soccer. All I have to do is pass him the ball and watch him score all of the goals,” Israel said. “This team has become my family. We have a greater bond than just the soccer field.”