African Footballers in America

The US Major Soccer League is luring foreign players, especially decent African players, and not just those whose careers are on the wane.

Obafemi Martins in 2007 when he still a player of Newcastle United in the Premier League (Wiki Commons).

The news that Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins is joining Major League Soccer team, Seattle Sounders, from his Spanish La Liga club, Levante, may surprise and excite some people. Martins has played – in that order – for Reggiano, Inter Milan, Newcastle United, Wolfsburg, Rubin Kazan and, most recently, Levante before he made the move to MLS, so he is no slouch. Some view his move to Seattle as a last pay day. Don’t forget that Martins, who burst onto the scene in 2003, is listed as being 28 years old, though some people snigger at that. He may be much older, so this may be a sign that he plans to retire soon. On top of all this, Sepp Blatter, President of world football governing body FIFA, does not think highly of MLS. Neither do those who spent their time commenting on African football. For example, Cheta Nwanze, the Lagosian football sage who foresaw Nigeria’s 2013 African Nations Cup title win, noted tersely: “Obafemi Martins has confirmed his retirement from all known forms of serious football.” But this kind of sniping has not diminished the lure of the MLS for foreign players (and not just those whose careers are on the wane). Especially African players. 

First up, Yann Songo’o, another Cameroonian. He plays as a defender for Sporting Kansas City. The reason his name sounds sort of familiar is that he is the son of former Cameroon national team goalkeeper, Jacques Songo’o, who had two memorable spells at Deportivo La Coruna in Spain, where young Yann started in the youth structures before moving onto Real Zaragoza’s B team. From there, he moved to the MLS.

Probably the most impressive African player in MLS right now is Kei Kamara; the most decorated is Martins. As for Kamara, he was born in Sierra Leone, lived through the civil war, between he joined his mother in the US ten years ago.  He is not technically a “foreign player” since he is as much a product of the US college soccer system as Sierra Leone. After college, at California State University Dominguez Hills, he was drafted by the LA Galaxy. Kamara is twenty eight year old and plays as a striker. His current club is Sporting Kansas City. During the MLS off season he went on loan to Norwich City. He’s been a big hit in East Anglia. They already wrote a song for him and his debut for the Canaries filled cinemas back in Sierra Leone where he is from.

Steve Zakuani from the Democratic Republic of Congo plays for the Seattle Sounders.  Most of his adult soccer career has been in the US, but he spent some time in the youth system of Arsenal Football Club in London. (Steve partly grew up there when his dad moved the family there for a job as a translator.) After breaking his leg in a game back in 2011, he made his triumphant return to his team in the fall of 2012. Watch an interview where he discusses coming back after his injury here.

Then there’s Kenny Mansally of Gambia, who came from Gambian club football to try his luck in the MLS. A defender, he first signed with New England Revolution where he played between 2007 and 2012, before transferring to Real Salt Lake.

Mamadou (Futty) Danso, another Gambian and also a defender, recruited to play college soccer in the US.  He was drafted by DC United, but never played a match for them, instead playing for the Portland Timbers in the USL (a lower professional league) and for them when Portland got a franchise in the MLS (there’s no promotion or relegation in the MLS; soccer in the US is organized like every other major professional sports in the US). He has been called up by the Gambian national team.

Kalif Al-Hassan is a twenty two year old striker who plays for the Portland Timbers. He started his professional career with a local Ghanaian team, Liberty Professionals, before moving to the US. His father, George Al-Hassan, played in the Ghanaian national team on and off between 1970 and 1990. George was in the Ghanaian team that won the African Cup of Nations in 1978 and 1982. Khalifa represented Ghana at under 17 level.

Lawrence Olum is a 28 year old midfielder from Kenya who came to the US to play college soccer. He is currently on the books of  Sporting Kansas City. Olum has also played for a number of other MLS clubs, including the Minnesota Thunder, the Austin Aztex, and Orlando City.

Mehdi Ballouchi was born in Morocco and was a youth player with SCC Mohammédia, now in Morocco’s lower leagues. Ballouchi came to the US as a teenager, playing, first, high school and then college soccer. He was signed to a team in a development pro league before being picked up by Real Salt City in the MLS draft.  He had a decent career at Salt Lake before moving to Colorado Rapids where he was equally a fan favorite. His biggest distinction was playing alongside Thierry Henry at New York Red Bulls. He currently plays as a midfielder for the San Jose Earthquakes.

Then there is Ty Shipalane, a twenty-seven year old midfielder who plays for the lower league Carolina Railhawks of the NASL, the second tier in the US.

Finally, Nizar Khalfan is a midfielder who no longer plays for Vancouver Whitecaps F.C. I included him here because of his amazing goal for Vancouver against Real Salt Lake in October 2011. He recently moved back to Tanzania to play for the Young Africans SC, in the Tanzanian Premier League.

Further Reading