Gambia is an oddly-shaped vestige of colonialism. Wedged into Senegal, its narrow borders determined by the distance a 19th Century warship could fire its guns from the middle of the Gambia River. Alex Haley's "Roots" put Gambia on the tourism trail. But the former British colony was completely off the international soccer map until qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2005 and the U-20 event last year.
Gambia is an unlikely place to have produced prospects for the MLS. But, thanks to the sharp eyes of some U.S.-based agents and the instincts of New England coach Steve Nicol and assistant Paul Mariner, the Revolution have capitalized on what could be West Africa's only untapped talent pool by acquiring Abdoulie Ken Mansally and Sainey Nyassi. And the Gambians, who turned 19 within two days of each other in January, could be among the emerging young stars in the league after scintillating performances in the Revolution's 3-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the season opener.
Mansally is compactly built, strong enough to play with his back to goal, skillful and speedy going forward. He led the Revolution with five goals in six preseason matches, winning a starting striker position alongside Taylor Twellman. In the opener, Mansally paired with Adam Cristman after Twellman was scratched from the lineup during warmups against Houston and later declared out for at least six weeks.
The Revolution planned to slowly break in Nyassi, concerned with his lack of size (5-foot-8, 135 pounds) and his defensive ability on the right wing. But Nyassi proved dependable and durable during the preseason and was given the starting role after Wells Thompson sustained a left heel bruise.
And Nyassi was dynamic in the opener, racing past Houston defenders from the opening minutes until the final seconds of injury time, setting up the opening goal and scoring the third following an impressive stepover move and confident finish past Pat Onstad. Nyassi also survived a blow to the head and defended effectively, clearing a shot off the line in the 58th minute.
Though Boston seems an unlikely destination for Mansally and Nyassi, a series of events indicates they were destined for the Revolution. Their first steps toward New England began when former Tampa Bay Mutiny general manager Farrukh Quraishi helped set up Gambia's training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last June. Quraishi and his Boston-based partner, Tom Bagley, began working with Nyassi and twin brother Sanna, who could also be on the way to MLS. Another Boston-based agent, Patrick McCabe, had taken Mansally to Norway, but his fallback plan was the Revolution.
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Then, the morning after the Revolution-Chivas USA game on July 7, Mariner and Nicol traveled to Montreal to watch Gambia's 2-1 win over Portugal in the U-20 tournament. Mansally converted the deciding goal with a 68th-minute free kick, but the Revolution coaches were just as impressed with the high-octane runs on the wings of both Gambians.
So, the day after Gambia was eliminated from the tournament, Mansally and Nyassi flew to Boston. Mansally's bags, however, were on the team flight to Banjul, so the players had to share clothes for several weeks. That would be the start of an odyssey during which neither player received a paycheck or had access to an automobile for more than four months while they were sharing a room at a commuter hotel off Route 1, about five miles from Gillette Stadium. Work visas were not approved until late August and, possibly because of Gambia's lack of experience with exporting players, the International Transfer Certificates took an extra week to come through (they had been faxed to the Revolution instead of to the U.S. Soccer Federation in Chicago).
Even now, Mansally and Nyassi are struggling with the bureaucracy. Neither had a valid driver's license when MLS started, so Bagley drove them from the home of their host family to the opening game.
The inconveniences and setbacks have barely fazed Mansally and Nyassi. When Bagley dropped them off in sub-freezing temperatures before the season opener, he told them if they ran a lot, they wouldn't feel the cold. That was good advice.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.