In search of talent, Minnesota United reaches into Africa

Ian Fuller was tired and hungry after traveling from Minnesota to Ghana on a scouting trip last summer. In an area of the west African country with few restaurants, the United assistant coach spotted an outdoor kitchen with a huge pot stewing over a fire.

Inside the pot, Fuller guessed, was beef intestine. The local custom, he learned, was to take it from the pot using a ball of dough, and he briefly dug in.

“That was the first bit of food in a while, and I made up (a story) that it was quite spicy and I couldn’t take spice,” Fuller said. “I didn’t finish it, and I was hungry for the rest of the day. I think it was worth it in the end (not eating the meal), and I wasn’t on the toilet for two days.”

Fuller has discovered that looking for soccer talent in these parts requires patience and understanding. His journey began with shots to prevent yellow fever and pills to combat malaria, both necessary when visiting sub-Saharan nations Ghana and Cameroon.

And he discovered fairly quickly those countries don’t operate on the clock to which he’s accustomed — game schedules that can fluctuate on a day’s notice — and he often was forced to judge the talent of players on dirt fields.

When inquiring about a player’s age, a pro scout might be asked, “How old do you want him to be?” Because databases aren’t always available, a player’s previous experience can be difficult to pin down. Sometimes, agents falsely claim to be representing a player. And once in a while signing a player requires the blessing of a local tribe’s chief.

When MLS began in 1996, there were 16 African-born players on team rosters. That number peaked at 45 last season, but dipped to 38 this year.

New Minnesota United signing Frantz Pangop, shown in an undated courtesy photo circa Jan. 2018, is a 24-year-old attacker who also plays for the Cameroon national team. (Courtesy of Minnesota United)

United acquired two Cameroonians last offseason: winger Frantz Pangop, who made his MLS debut against New York Red Bulls on March 24, and defender Bertrand Owundi Eko’o, who has yet to play. The Loons pursued 26-year-old attacking midfielder Winful Cobbinah of Ghana but weren’t able to complete the transfer.

United, with an increasing scouting focus in Latin America, has called on outside agencies to help them navigate Africa and scouting services to provide game film on prospects to watch in Blaine. This prep is vital because when Amos Magee, United’s director of player personnel, also went to Ghana last October, and he wasn’t alone.

“It’s been pretty well scouted,” Magee said. “But it’s a relationship-building piece that you try take advantage of. Frantz and Owundi, we think they will do well, but that is a big piece. If they both clunk out, we have to re-evaluate the next time we go into Cameroon and see how it fits.”

These players could be part of United’s puzzle. With only 18 minutes between them, Pangop and Owundi, a 6-foot-2, 24-year-old center back, would best benefit from a loan to second-tier USL team to gain playing time this summer.

Coach Adrian Heath said culture shock is real, from the language to seeing snow for the first time to, most importantly, MLS’s higher level of play.

“It’s always a gamble whenever you bring someone in from a different country whether they are going to settle,” Heath said. “There are so many little things that go into it. People think its an issue of turning up and playing.”

Magee said the Loons have attention on West Africa and South Africa, where New Zealand center back Michael Boxall was playing before becoming a starting center back for the Loons. There is a possibility United taps into East Africa, which would intertwine with one of the Twin Cities’ largest immigrant populations.

“We will always look … in East African countries, if something comes along there,” Magee said. “We have a population that would be hungry for a good player from there.”

Some of MLS’s best players are African, including Philadelphia midfielder David Accam (Ghana), Vancouver forward Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone), Colorado’s Dominique Badji (Senegal) and Portland’s Fanendo Adi (Nigeria), who scored the game-winner against Minnesota last weekend.

The Seattle Sounders, the Loons’ opponent Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, has added 20-year-old Cameroonian fullback Nouhou Tolo. Pangop and Nouhou were together on the Cameroonian national team when Pangop scored in a 2-0 victory over Algeria in a World Cup qualifier in October.

Minnesota’s second-year striker Abu Danladi was born in Ghana and came to the U.S. through the Right to Dream program that helps Ghanan soccer players come to the U.S.

Heath has heard Danladi tell a story about an “incredible player” and friend that was passed over in a scouting trial in Ghana, and United’s coach starts to wonder about other potential passed-over players as well as possible late bloomers.

After settling in Southern California, Danlad left UCLA after his junior season and was selected with Minnesota’s first pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Danladi scored eight goals and finished second in the MLS rookie of year race last season.

“Everything here is different,” Danladi said. “Definitely better facilities here. I grew up playing on a dirt field and didn’t play with cleats until I was 12, played mostly barefoot, and most of the time it was two or three teams training on one field.”

Pangop said he was lucky to grow up in a stable home with both parents raising him, his four brothers and three sisters while working as teachers. School work was the priority, but soccer was his dream. He left home to join a Cameroon club at age 13 and said he received interest from clubs in Austria, Algeria and Spain. His French translator, teammate Jerome Thiesson, joked those Spanish clubs must have been titans Real Madrid and Barcelona.

“The other offers were through other agencies or agents, and the offer my agent got me was from Minnesota, and I wanted to stick with my agent,” Pangop said through Thiesson. “He forgot to tell me it was really cold here.”

Pangop, 24, laughed at the weather and said coming to Minnesota has been an exciting new challenge. Fuller and others have noticed the desire he and other Africans display in their play.

“It’s just the love and the passion for the game,” Fuller said. “They just don’t have the opportunities that a lot of places do. There is a lot of talent, and the players from my experience will do anything they can to have that opportunity. The effort that they will put in compared to some other players, particularly in our country, is significant.”

Said Pangop, “It has always been soccer, soccer, soccer, and my dream has come true.”

First Published by Tin Cities Pioneer Press

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