Phanuel Kavita -- How A Refugee from The Congo Started Playing Professional Soccer in Birmingham
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1993 and moved to the United States in 2000, professional soccer player Phanuel Kavita of Birmingham Legion FC came here as a refugee.
“There was war at the time going on in the Congo,” said Kavita. “It was a big war, and unfortunately, we became a part of it. A lot of things went on, and the UN came in and took over the area we were at. All the sudden we had the huge blessing of coming to America. There were a lot of families able to get out of the situation we were in — a lot of them went to Europe and a lot of them came to the US. Luckily, we were blessed to come to the US. We ended up in Utah.”
“We got [to Utah] in January,” said Kavita. “It was very, very cold. I remember seeing snow for the first time.”
Born in a warzone, Kavita’s life changed forever when he was forced to leave Africa and seek refuge in the United States. Soccer became his life in the States, but it was already a large part of him and his family before he came here.
“One of the things my siblings and I really enjoyed was playing soccer,” said Kavita, thinking back to his early days with the ball. “Every time you were playing soccer — it was freedom. People didn’t care about what was going on in their life situation so it was always nice to get out and play.”
After having left their home and come to a strange, snowy place they’d never imagine themselves being in, Kavita and his siblings have a very close relationship.
“My older brother was probably the focal point of my mentorship — trying to become a professional or just in leadership roles,” said Kavita. “Growing up at the time, and even now, it’s definitely my older brother, who played and was unbelievable at soccer. He was amazing — to the point where I’d skip practices to go watch him play.”
By the time Kavita was in high school, soccer became his dream and his life. While at school, he was simultaneously playing high school soccer, training in the Olympic Development Program for soccer, and was also playing club soccer. Soccer as a career started to become real to him when he joined MLS team Real Salt Lake’s traveling youth club.
It was there an opportunity to join Real Salt Lake’s academy came, which would further propel him to play soccer at Clemson University in South Carolina.
“When I was playing for the RLS traveling club team, we went to this tournament and we met these professional players and they were talking about how the academy changed their lives,” said Kavita. “So when I got the opportunity to go to the academy I took it, and while I was there my game changed so much and gave me a lot of opportunities to go to Clemson.”
From a warzone in the Congo, to the snowy hills of Utah. Kavita dedicated his life to soccer, traveling with Real Salt Lake’s academy and their youth club teams until all that culminated with a Scout of the South bringing him to Clemson University. Upon visiting the quaint college town, Kavita fell in love with the place. He committed to Clemson where its small town, friendly atmosphere made him feel at home.
While at Clemson, Kavita started every one of the 81 games he played in. He was made captain in his last two years at the University, leading his team to an AAC championship.
He still keeps up with Clemson today.
“They played here against UAB a couple of weeks ago. I went and got to go talk to the coaches and the staff and some of the boys,” said Kavita, remarking on how Clemson is still a big part of his life.
“It was unbelievable,” said Kavita. From a refugee family who, through unfortunate circumstances, came to the United States, soccer gave him an opportunity he always dreamed of. “One of my goals was not to always just to play professionally but to also get my degree from college,” he said.
Kavita excelled in his studies which allowed him to graduate early. His senior year, three days before graduation, Kavita remembers getting a professional contract to play for Real Salt Lake in MLS on a home-grown deal. “Growing up in Utah, and then going back there and playing professionally — having my family come out and see my was legit a dream come true,” said Kavita. “To the tee,” he said.
While playing for Real Salt Lake, Kavita would meet future Birmingham Legion teammates Matt VanOekel, Kyle Colberson and Kyle Fisher. Colberson and Fischer have since retired from soccer, but VanOekel — as we all know — remains a Legion FC legend who has played between the goal posts as goalkeeper since Legion FC’s inaugural season.
“[VanOekel] was the rookie coming in,” said Kavita, who met him in 2017 at Salt Lake. “Which was crazy, because he’s a couple years older than me and I was pretty young at the time.” Kavita and VanOekel attended the same church together in Salt Lake City, before Kavita moved to Puerto Rico to play in the North American Soccer League (NASL). None of them ever could have known they’d be playing with eachother again for a startup team in the Deep South four years later.
“It was nice knowing a few people in Birmingham before I came here,” said Kavita.
Kavita went on to play in the NASL for Puerto Rico FC, where he says at the time had more experienced players than the USL.
“It allowed the game to be played at a faster pace,” said Kavita. “The USL was still developing at the time. It was a difference, but not much at all.”
Kavita played in Puerto Rico for a year in 2017, making 27 appearances for the club, before he played for Saint Louis FC for three seasons in 2018, 2019, and 2020, starting every game. In 2017 he moved to Birmingham and quickly became Birmingham Legion FC’s captain.
“The way I go about doing my job, I do it with a lot of passion,” said Kavita, commenting on why he thinks he was chosen to wear the captain’s armband. “I show my best and do my best all the time.”
Legion FC now goes into its last matches of the regular season. They’ve already qualified for the playoffs but are searching for a home playoff game and to carry a winning mentality into the postseason.
“The job isn’t done,” said Kavita on the last stretch of the Legion FC season. “I don’t think, having qualified for the playoffs, you want to get complacent — especially at the end,” said Kavita.
As a side note, if you haven’t looked much into the Birmingham Legion, what’s better than a classic rivalry to get you in a competitive mood ripe for watching soccer? Legion FC’s arch nemesis is Memphis 901 FC, and the rivalry is arguably the largest rivalry in the entire League. It dates back to UAB Football’s Battle of the Bones, where the winner of the derby would receive the highly coveted bronze-made rack of ribs that gave the derby its name.
Legion’s rivalry with Memphis really wasn’t that large until, seemingly out of nowhere, soccer fans from Birmingham, England stumbled upon Legion FC on social media and blew it out of proportion. Now it's a heated rivalry that players very much feel on the pitch.
“The players definitely feel the rivalry,” said Kavita. “It gets rowdy and competitive — trust me.”
Phanuel Kavita and the Birmingham Legion FC squad will launch into the playoffs to compete for the USL trophy in a single elimination tournament after the conclusion of the regular season on October 15. Legion FC’s last match of the season is against Indy Eleven at Protective Stadium, which will largely decide whether they receive a home playoff match in the first round. You can get tickets and keep up to date with the Birmingham Legion at bhmlegion.com and can find them on all social media platforms with the handle @bhmlegion.