Most people think of David Beckham or Thierry Henry when they think about foreign players playing on American soil. Longtime fans of Major League Soccer might remember the exploits of Marco Etcheverry and Hristo Stoichkov. Inevitably thoughts turn toward those players we already knew from stints in more-established European leagues.
Few think about the rising African influence in the top flight of American soccer, and especially the influx of young African players. But MLS has proven itself capable of being a league that develops not only homegrown talent but that can also scout and find players who have skills to thrive in the United States.
Where we often tend to think about foreign players coming to MLS after their prime years have passed, the African infusion into the league is largely comprised of players still developing toward their prime. Since 2002, when Liberian defender Chris Gbandi was selected first overall in the MLS SuperDraft by Dallas and played six seasons for the club, teams have scoped out African soccer recognizing the quality they can get for their money thanks to the wealth of talent emerging on the continent.
The increase in African talent playing for American colleges and universities has also helped raise their profile. Since Gbandi’s selection in 2002, there have been ten African-born players selected in the top five picks of the annual SuperDraft (including Ghanaian-born Freddy Adu). Eight of those nine (excluding then 14-year-old Adu) were the product of a college program in the U.S.
Just as European leagues are turning increasingly toward MLS as a source of reasonably-priced talent, so too has MLS recognized the potential for Africa to provide value for its franchises. The fact that these players are often acclimated to American life via their experience in the U.S. university system makes them even more attractive to teams that largely draw from that pool of candidates.
Heading into the 2013 MLS season, there could be as many as two dozen Africans on league rosters representing thirteen different nations. As more teams recognize the skill-to-cost ratio available in talent-rich Africa, the influx should only increase as prudent MLS franchises recognize that advantage when looking across the Atlantic for talent.
AFRICAN PLAYERS ON 2013 MLS PRESEASON ROSTERS
Chicago Fire — Patrick Nyarko (Ghana), Dominic Oduro (Ghana)
Colorado Rapids — Machael David (Nigeria)
D.C. United — John Thorrington (South Africa), Joseph Nane (Cameroon)
FC Dallas — Ugo Ihemelu (Nigeria)
Sporting Kansas City — Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone), Lawrence Olum (Kenya)
Montreal Impact — Matteo Ferrari (Algeria [Italian national]), Sanna Nyassi (Gambia)
New England Revolution — Dimitry Imbongo (Congo DR), Sainey Nyassi (Gambia)
Philadelphia Union — Bakary Soumaré (Mali), Michael Lahoud (Sierra Leone)
Portland Timbers — Kalif Alhassan (Ghana), Darlington Nagbe (Liberia), Danny Mwanga (Congo DR), Mamadou Danso (Gambia), Franck Songo’o (Cameroon)
Real Salt Lake — Kenny Mansally (Gambia)
San Jose Earthquakes — Mehdi Ballouchy (Morocco)
Seattle Sounders — Steve Zakuani (Congo DR)
Vancouver Whitecaps — Gershon Koffie (Ghana), Kekuta Manneh (Gambia)