Last week, Seattle Sounders FC announced the signing of their fourth homegrown player in Victor Mansaray. At the start of the 2014 MLS season, Sounders signed their second and third homegrown players in Sean Okoli and Aaron Kovar, following the original homegrown success from star defender DeAndre Yedlin in 2013.
Unlike the previous three, Mansaray’s journey to the Sounders Academy and a coveted homegrown contract was unique. Yedlin, Okoli and Kovar all had common elements in their path to the Sounders first team – all three played for big clubs in the top state and regional competitions, including the Washington Youth Soccer Regional Club League (RCL), US Youth Soccer Washington State Championships and US Youth Soccer Region IV (Far West) Championships, and all three were members of the Washington Youth Soccer Elite Player Development (EPD) program before joining the Sounders Academy.
Mansaray, however, was fortunate just to have a team to play on and he put his development in his own hands. He never played EPD, never won a state championship and spent most of his club time in the RCL 2nd division with Norpoint FC. As his former coach at Norpoint, Dennis Atwood, explains, Manasaray practically walked off the street to begin his ascent to becoming a professional athlete.
“We were Under-12 or 13 and trained every Tuesday and Thursday nights,” explained Atwood. “There was this kid who kept showing up to all my practices and he would just sit there and watch. After a few times I went over and talked to him and I just asked him what was going on since he’d been hanging out at all our trainings over the last couple months. He had a really thick accent and said, ‘I just like to watch coach.’
“I asked him if he played and he said no, but he used to play in the streets where he came from. I said well you’re here, so you might as well play. He didn’t have any cleats, but he wore a size 10 and I wear a size 10, so I gave him my cleats. He kicked the ball around with us and just showed some really natural talent. At Norpoint it’s always tough to get players, so I went home and talked to his dad and signed him up and he played with us until he got picked up by Darren (former Sounders FC Academy Director and Washington Youth Soccer EPD Director, Darren Swatzky).”
Mansaray was born in Sierra Leone before relocating to Jamaica briefly before ending up in the Seattle area. New surroundings and a different culture can be intimidating, and despite coaches urging him to join a premier club, Mansaray felt comfortable training on his own and competing with his newfound team. As timid as Mansaray may have seemed, Atwood says he saw the gears turning.
“He was awesome. Our team was traveling to Idaho, Oregon, all over for tournaments and we’d pack six kids into a hotel room. Sometimes I’d sleep in the van. At U-15 or U-16, most of the kids wanted to go chase girls, doing whatever during tournaments, and I’d be in my room working or whatever. Vic would come in and I’d say, ‘Why aren’t you hanging out with those guys?’ He’d say, ‘Nah coach, those guys don’t get it. If you don’t live it and breathe it, you’ll never become it.’
“One day we were all sitting around the hotel room in between matches and we’d just got beat in a game we should have won. Vic was angry because a couple of the guys had stayed up too late the night before and their heads weren’t in the game. They were getting on Vic and he said, ‘No, you guys don’t get it. I’m going to be a pro one day and you’re not going to be laughing then.’”
Mansaray played for Norpoint FC until their U-18 year (Mansaray was 15) when he was spotted by Sounders scouts. By that time, Mansaray was ready to take the next step in his career. After a year with Sounders Academy, Mansaray was invited to a tournament with the U.S. Under-18 National Team. Mansaray excelled, and is expected to be recalled to the next U-18 camp according to Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
Mansaray won’t be able to debut for the Sounders first team until 2015, but he is now training and taking every chance he gets to develop his game.
“I’ve been happy here the whole summer working on my game, the coaches like what they see and all that so it was just the right place for me to stay,” said Mansaray. “My goal is to play on the first team and I’m going to come in every day and try to get a spot.
“I talk to DeAndre (Yedlin) every day in the locker room and he tells me cool stuff and how to become a pro. He shows me advice and I try to go down that path. He tells me the basics – Make sure you stay focused, do what you’re supposed to do, do what you’re told to do and you’ll be alright. Since I first stepped in here these guys are like family to me. They take care of me and anything I ask of them they give it to me so I just try to come out here every day and learn from these guys.”
Mansaray stayed with Atwood in his home for two years as he needed help with rides to games and practices, and was best friends with Atwood’s son. Atwood was one of the first to get a call when Mansaray was offered a homegrown contract.
“All of a sudden he gives me a call and he says, ‘Coach, you aren’t going to believe this, they offered me a pro contract.’ I said, ‘Oh get out of here,’ and then he texts me a picture of him with his new jersey. He was just a skinny little kid sitting on the side of the pitch in the pouring rain, in a t-shirt and torn pair of jeans,” laughs Atwood.
“I think he’ll do really well. He’s a great kid. He can be a little arrogant and cocky, but that’s okay because you have to have that when you want to be a professional athlete. You have to have a little bit of swagger.
“I had no doubts when he was 13 he was going to do something special. You could see it in his eyes and he just had the mindset for it. It’s an amazing story.”