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Nationally Ranked MLK High School Produces City's Soccer Kings

By Dylan Butler | September 17, 2013 8:20am
 Martin Luther King has won 14 city championships over the last 17 years and is favorite to win again.
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LINCOLN SQUARE — There are a lot of stories about how Martin Luther King High School's boys soccer coach Martin Jacobson has been able to create such a powerhouse team for the better part of two decades.

One rumor has it that Jacobson — whose team is consistently ranked No. 1 in the city and among the top in the nation — doesn't know his roster until the final plane arrives at JFK Airport. The other is that he hands out his business cards to cabdrivers.

The rumors are only half true.

“I did give my card out a lot. I think I made 2,000 cards, and every cabdriver gets a card,” said Jacobson, a 67-year-old Brooklyn native, who said he doles out the cards each year in hopes of getting the word out to possible players who hail from around the globe. “I don’t care where they come from. It’s wonderful to see them meld together and become friends.”

While Jacobson hasn't had much success finding players through cabbies, there's no questioning his team's success — or its diversity.

Over the years, the Knights players have come from Trinidad, Latin America, West Africa and many points in between.

“Here, we have guys from different backgrounds — Spanish, African, Haitians, Caribbeans — it's pretty easy to interact,” said MLK senior Jethro Dede, who hails from the Ivory Coast. “It’s fun to play with other people rather than just one group.”

A year ago, the Knights captured the PSAL Class A title, defeating Aviation High School in the final at Randall’s Island for MLK’s 14th city title in 17 years. The team finished the season with just one loss — a non-league defeat to Long Island's St. Anthony’s  — and was ranked No. 10 in the country by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

That’s a historic season for most teams. But for MLK, it’s just another year.

“We’re the most famous high school team in the country,” Jacobson boasted.

The program has produced 10 professional players, including New York Cosmos midfielder David Diosa, and Jacobson believes he has a future pro in Dede, a holding midfielder.

“Jethro is one of the best leaders I’ve ever had, a natural leader who fires them up, and he’s a great player,” Jacobson said. “He can do it all. We’re very fortunate.”

Dede, 17, moved to New York from his native Ivory Coast on Oct. 10, 2008, reuniting with his mother who emigrated the year prior. Previously, he attended Holy Name School on West 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Dede lives in South Ozone Park, but takes the hour-and-15-minute trip to school every morning because he wants to play soccer at MLK.

“It’s pretty far, but I like soccer so I want to play on the best team in the city. It’s an honor," he said. “Being the best team in the city, the country, everybody’s objective is to beat you. It’s a lot of pressure to handle.”

Dede is just one of many immigrants to play for the melting pot that is Martin Luther King.

Star forward Amara Sesay was born in Liberia, but he grew up in Ivory Coast and moved to New York four years ago. He attended a school in The Bronx, where he lives, but transferred to MLK after watching the team practice.

“Here you have friends who are from the same country as you,” the 16-year-old senior said. “It’s like you’re home."

Jacobson might have some of the city’s top players every year, but he doesn’t benefit from amenities like rivals in other boroughs.

“We’re a team without a locker room,” he said. “We’re not Francis Lewis; we can’t walk behind our school and practice.”

Still, King has thrived.

Jacobson, known as “Coach Jake,” is universally loved by his players. As for opposing coaches, not so much.

Though his detractors are more silent these days, Jacobson has had his share of critics throughout the years. The most vocal was former Newtown coach Howard Ranzer, who died after succumbing to cancer at the age of 59 in 2005.

“He played men against boys,” Ranzer told CBS’ "60 Minutes II" in 1999, referring to accusations that Jacobson used over-age players.

Jacobson, who has also had his battles with the PSAL over the years, scoffed at his critics.

“I don’t personally think I rub people the wrong way, but I think it's because when you win all the time, there’s jealously and envy for any champion,” he said. “What am I doing except caring for kids?”

Jacobson, who worked in the New York City public schools system for more than 40 years before retiring from teaching, showed up for the first day of school last Monday to be there for his boys even though their game didn't start for hours.

“I went in today because I wanted to make sure the kids I put into school had a good first day,” he said. “I made sure they had their train passes and they were OK.”

Later that day, Jacobson arrived at Riverside Park where the Knights, currently ranked No. 9 in the country, opened the 2013 season against Lab Museum.

The Knights pride themselves in playing the "beautiful game," and that was put on display in the opener. Players quickly moved the ball to one another, seamlessly going from the left of the field to the right, from the midfield to the defenders, and vice-versa. Possession was never given away recklessly in the Knights' 9-0 victory.

In fact, the style is so attractive that pickup players set to take the field after the game patiently sit and watch the performance, as do others in the park who have no affiliation to either team.

“Throughout the year our goal is not just to win a city championship, but to win beautifully,” MLK assistant coach Josh Sherron said. “We keep working all year long to develop King soccer so we could be something the whole city is proud of.”

Jacobson is also proud — proud of the program he’s developed and proud of the players he’s coached.

“I’m proud that these kids have come into our lives and we’ve come into theirs and that we’ve helped them,” Jacobson said. “It goes both ways. I'm good for them and they’re good for me.”