Outside of North America, it's becoming apparent that Africa is producing most of MLS' new talent. In the past two seasons, the league has tapped into Africa more than ever before. There were 34 African-born MLS players last year, and there are 32 from 14 African countries this year, more than triple the number
(10) of the 2003 season. The continent with the second-most MLS players is South America with 29.
And this could be just the start, considering the combination of a huge talent pool and the affordability of African players.
African imports have always made sense for teams with low budgets. But MLS never seemed to get into the spirit of recruiting there -- until recently. And, when MLS did sign African players, they usually were veterans with experience in Europe, or they had been college students in the U.S. Now, MLS is doing what European clubs do -- scouting young African players, then placing them in a more structured system and exhibiting the patience to let them acclimate and develop.
The New England Revolution look to be leading the way. The Revs, who had a total of 10 Africans in their ranks from 1996 to 2007, now have five African-born players on the roster. No MLS team has more Africans than the Revolution. Toronto FC also has five Africans, four teenagers and Kevin Harmse, 24, a native of South Africa.
Gambians Abdoulie "Kenny" Mansally and Sainey Nyassi led the way, joining the Revolution as 18-year-olds after the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada.
The progress of Mansally and Nyassi encouraged New England coach Steve Nicol and assistant Paul Mariner to become more Afro-centric in building a team. And, when Nicol and Mariner traveled to Ghana in March, they felt as though they had touched down in soccer paradise, albeit a very rustic one.
"It's a throwback to 30 years ago, where everybody is fighting for the ball, hungry to play," Mariner said. "They work both sides of the ball -- it's a natural gift that they have. We saw 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds, they almost brought tears to our eyes, the way they play.
"Not only their skill, but their game intelligence is unbelievable. And they are playing in the worst conditions you've ever seen, not a blade of grass on field."
The Revolution coaches noted the young Africans' attitude toward the game coincides with MLS style.
"The interesting thing, also, is that they work both sides of the ball," Mariner said. "If Player A lost the ball, he immediately tries to get the ball back. So, therefore, you don't get people dancing on the ball, you don't get people showboating. And, generally, to be successful, that's what you do -- get the ball and give it, keep the ball moving. That's especially true in our league.
"There are all these wonderful players, like Ronaldinho, Kaka -- but they are at a different level. Because of the cost and the way the league has gone -- when we saw Sainey and Kenny in Montreal [in Gambia's 2-1 win over Portugal], we discussed it coming home on the plane and we said they can definitely help us; they are the kind of players who can actually come into our league and play."
Proof of Nicol's conviction was a trip to West Africa to check out Cameroonian forward Stephane Assengue and Ghanaian defender Emmanuel Osei. Nicol, among the few MLS head coaches to scout in Africa, went to Accra, Ghana, from Revolution training camp in Austin, Texas, via Chicago, Frankfurt and Lagos -- a 24-hour journey.
But West Africa should not be considered inaccessible. There are seven-hour direct, nonstop flights from New York to Dakar, Senegal.
And, once an MLS person lands in Senegal, he can look up Mamadou Diallo, the 2000 MLS leading scorer, now a successful businessman with strong ties to the game at all levels.
Patrick McCabe, a Boston-based agent who has connected MLS with African talent since 1997, believes a key to evaluating the Africans is "to focus on seeing players in their own environment. There are a lot of players in the region. You can get to Senegal in seven hours, instead of going to Argentina or Brazil, which are more complicated trips and where you get inflated prices."
McCabe's business practice has been shaped by his experience playing in South Africa, where he said players' contracts often were not honored.
McCabe represents several U.S. players and has been at the forefront of MLS' exchanges with Africa. In 1997, McCabe brought South Africans Jerome McCarthy (Benni's older brother) and Brian Sebapole for tryouts with the Revolution, and Sebapole stuck with San Jose for a season. In 2000, Diallo joined the Tampa Bay Mutiny and showed the league what an experienced, powerful striker could accomplish. Diallo departed after two seasons, but he made most of his money performing in Europe and has since invested in real estate and developing youngsters. Many of Senegal's young prospects are in contact with Diallo and Stoke City player Salif Diao who help place players with clubs all over the world. Diallo and Diao are committed "not for the business but to give kids opportunities," McCabe said.
Gambia, though, is dwarfed by Ghana and Senegal in terms of exposure and population. Gambia has been a colonial backwater, coming to prominence briefly as the ancestral home of writer Alex Haley. Even today, one of the country's most popular tourist attractions is a "Roots" tour. But the country has only recently come into view on the international soccer stage because of the success of its youth teams.
"Gambia is a very young league," McCabe said. "You don't see anyone over the age of 23. The players are all between 16 and 21. If you don't make it by then, you go out and get a real job."
And the prices are bargain-basement. The combined transfer fee for Mansally and Nyassi, who both start for the Revolution, was much less than $100,000, according to a source. Toronto has two Gambians -- defenders Emmanuel Gomez, 18, and Amadou Sanyang, 17, both reserves.
Gambian forward Ebrima Bojang might have been considered an even better prospect than the others when he traveled to the U.S. to train with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Toronto last year. But, after winning the golden boot (five goals in five games) in leading Gambia to the Africa U-17 championship last month in Algeria, Bojang's price tag has gone up. He has attracted attention from Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Inter, Tottenham. But two Gambian U-20 players, forward Harouna Jammeh (San
Jose) and defensive midfielder Bekai Sarr (D.C. United), are due for trials.
The experience of Mansally and Nyassi illustrates the young Africans' commitment to the game. After the 2007 FIFA under-20 tournament, Mansally landed in Boston without his luggage, which had been flown to Banjul with the rest of the Gambian team. The sole contents of Mansally's carry-on bag? His football boots. That was enough to get him through Revolution practice sessions. And, because neither Mansally nor Nyassi was eligible to receive a paycheck, they worked for nothing from July until the last month of the 2007 season. Needless to say, they could not afford a car, so they depended on teammates for rides to practice. As for dining, nearly every meal involved a sprint from their efficiency hotel to a sandwich shop across four-lane Route 1 on the Foxboro-Walpole town line.
But if soccer was all-consuming, that was all right for Mansally and Nyassi. Even today, neither has a U.S. driver's license. They depend on rides from Zimbabwean teammate Kheli Dube, who attended college in the U.S.
"When we go back home in the offseason, a lot of the young guys want to know how the league is," Mansally said.
Said Nyassi, "My only advice to them is, you can go to England, but it is difficult to get a work permit, and you should consider the MLS. We tell them it is a challenge here and you have to be ready. When we started it was a bit tough, but you get used to it, the travel, the food, all those kinds of things. At home you drive 15 or 20 minutes to get somewhere. Here, you spend a whole day flying, and then you play a game."
Both are anticipating the Aug. 20 game against the Seattle Sounders for the chance to compete against Nyassi's twin brother, Sanna.
"For us, it is a derby," Mansally said. "Even though you are flying for six hours."
Nicol's scouting trips to the Caribbean, Central and South America and Europe have seldom paid off, often because of requests of excessive transfer fees or salaries.
"It's all timing," Nicol said. "Where we've been going, generally, we're not quite certain the players we've been watching can play in the league."
But Nicol's African experience has produced viable performers at low cost.
"It's a big change from where they are coming from," Nicol said of the Africans. "They don't have all the luxuries everybody's got now in the Western world. It's what happened to Scottish football -- nobody's playing anymore. They used to play because they loved it, that's what they wanted to do -- and that's where you learn the fundamentals, playing it all the time. [In Africa] it's not Monday, Wednesday and Saturday playing football; they're playing it as many times of the day and as many days of the week as they can."
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.