West African representation in the top professional soccer league of the United States has grown quickly in recent years. As they reach the highest level across the Atlantic, African soccer players are seeing America as an increasingly attractive option.
Before Aboubakarim Ndaw arrived in the United States late last year from his native Guinea, he had heard about the success of some West African players in Major League Soccer, the United States' growing professional league.
Having set up trials with teams across America, Ndaw, 20, hopes to emulate the success of players like Macoumba Kandji, a native of Senegal, who plays for the New York Red Bulls, and Gambian Sainey Nyassi of the New England Revolution.
The number of West Africans playing professionally in the United States' top league continues to grow, to more than two dozen at the beginning of the 2009 MLS campaign.
America has provided an alternative stage for some of Africa's young talent, says Kandji, a forward for the Red Bulls.
"Since I was back home, since I was a little kid, always in the back of my mind I said I want to become a professional soccer player, even though I did not play for any team," Kandji said. "Once I came over here, it gives me a big opportunity because they have club soccer here, they have people to see you play, and there is a lot more opportunities here than back home.
Kandji says he did not come to the United States intent on becoming a professional soccer player. He says after he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, with his family, he enrolled at a junior college. While playing soccer there, he was spotted by a scout for the United Soccer League, the United States' second division. After a year-and-a-half of outstanding play in the second tier, Kandji earned a transfer to Major League Soccer.
Former American international player, Mike Burns, is the vice president of player personnel for MLS team New England Revolution. He says in the past many West Africans who joined the league had some pre-existing connection to the United States. Some are picked up from lower-level American teams, and others chosen after they attend college in the United States.
Burns says the success of those players has led teams to send representatives, such as Revolution coach Steve Nicol, to Africa in search of new players.
"In the case of our latest two signings, Steve Nicol made two trips over to Ghana this off season and scouted each player and we were able to get them signed in dealing with agents and dealing with the clubs that they were currently on," Burns said. "So in total we have five Africans, and we acquired those players in three different ways.
Burns says aside from helping to improve the quality of play on the soccer field, scouting trips to Africa offer a number of other benefits for the cost-conscious clubs of the Major League Soccer.
"I would say first and foremost would be value, value that we think we can obtain in going there," Burns said.
The Revolution have been among the trailblazers in uncovering hidden gems from West Africa, beginning with the 2007 acquisition of Gambian players Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally, who signed with the team after starring for The Gambia in the FIFA under-20 World Cup played in Canada that year.
Nyassi in particular has enjoyed a high level of success in the league, quickly becoming a regular in New England's lineup. Though the native of Bwiam state grew up admiring European professional leagues like England's Premiere League, he says has been impressed with the quality of Major League Soccer.
"I think they are coming up. It is really growing up," Nyassi said. "Soccer here is now really important. It is getting better every year. Hopefully things will come up because you can see that big players are going to come. As time goes on it will be a big league, a proper league like the Premiere League, hopefully."
Nyassi's twin brother was signed last year by the new MLS team in Seattle, and Nyassi says he is looking forward to the day the two meet on the field.
Despite the success of the Nyassi brothers, the road to professional stardom in the United States is still a difficult one for West Africans, says Guinean player Ndaw.
Ndaw, who is still searching for a team, says American clubs are mostly interested in older players who they can insert directly into their lineups. He says there is not much structure for development of younger players, and that teams are limited by roster restrictions that allow them only a small number of foreign players.
Reflecting on his own success, Nyassi offered some advice for young players like Ndaw, as well as the scores of youths back home in West Africa who long to play soccer professionally overseas.
"Let them just work hard and have patience," Nyassi said. "Work hard, that is all. Success, you never know, it does not come just one day. If you want to be something, imagine that other people are making it so why not you. So work hard and focus, you will be there one day. You will get there."
Nyassi says veteran American players have helped him improve his game, and he intends to learn all he can. After developing as a player in the United States, he hopes to earn a transfer to one of the well-known teams in England.