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Nov 3, 2008

Soumare opts for Mali national team

Bakary Soumare is a native of Mali, but had long envisioned himself in a U.S. national team uniform.

He often thought of playing for his adopted country and repaying it for all it did to help him achieve so many of his dreams. The Chicago Fire defender even came forward recently and spoke out publicly about his desire to represent the United States when he thought he could become a citizen in the near future.

Unfortunately for Soumare, he eventually learned that there was no way to cut down a wait of at least two more years to become an American citizen, so he made a decision that was best for his career, and one that would make his family in Africa happy.

Soumare is going to play for Mali.

The MLS defender of the year finalist chose Mali after it became clear that the process for him to secure his U.S. citizenship could not be expedited, and would have meant waiting until the fall of 2010 at the earliest to become eligible to play for the United States.

"Sometimes things don't go the way you want them to go," Soumare told ESPNsoccernet."In a perfect world I would be playing for the U.S. national team. Everything I am as a person and as a soccer player has been helped by America so I wanted to give back.

"That said, I'm also excited to be playing for Mali," Soumare said. "My father is very excited, my family back home is very excited. Either way I was going, there were going to be people would be disappointed."

A finalist for MLS defender of the year, Soumare is prepared to accept a call-up from Mali for the African nation's upcoming friendly against Algeria in Paris on Nov. 19. At the young age of 22, Soumare is hoping the call-up is the first step toward becoming a regular for a Mali team that boasts several standouts in midfield and at forward, but no real standouts in defense.

Part of Soumare's decision was having the chance to play for Mali in the African Nation's Cup and World Cup qualifying in 2009. Those opportunities, along with the chance to potentially play for Mali in the 2010 World Cup, were too difficult to pass up for a 22-year-old with aspirations that include making a club move to Europe.

"Those are a lot of games," Soumare said. "We are talking about two years worth of soccer games that can help my development as a soccer player, playing in a top international environment and in big competitions."

Boasting a roster that includes Frederick Kanoute, Mohamed Sissoko, Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra, Mali must finish first in an African World Cup qualifying group that includes Ghana, Benin and Sudan. Mali has never qualified for the World Cup.

Born in Mali before moving to France at an early age, Soumare moved to the United States at 15 and played high school soccer in New York City before embarking on a stellar career at the University of Virginia. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2007 MLS Draft by the Fire, Soumare has enjoyed a breakout second season in MLS, serving as the anchor on a Chicago defense that allowed the second-fewest goals in the league. His efforts helped him earn Fire defender of the year honors and he is one of three finalists for MLS defender of the year.

Soumare's decision to play for Mali will come as a surprise to U.S. national team fans because it comes just weeks after Soumare first publicly expressed his desire to play for the United States. He explained that he only came forward publicy about playing for the United States because he received some bad information about the chances that his citizenship would come sooner rather than later.

"It seemed like there were ways to get that process expedited so I thought to myself, 'if it takes a year then why not [talk about it],'" Soumare said. "I know that I've done my best to be a part of the team here in the United States, I did my homework and everything I could on my end, but it just couldn't happen."

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