Major League Soccer is fast becoming a viable destination for established African players, as well as rising youngsters from the continent, and dotted throughout the 22 teams in the league are several players born in Africa, or to African parents elsewhere.
As we move into the USA’s summer months, here are four exciting African players to keep track of as the season heats up.
Fanendo Adi (Nigeria – Centre forward – Portland Timbers)
When one thinks of the prototypical No. 9, Fanendo Adi would fit that description to a tee. The 26-year-old Nigerian striker has been an outstanding target in the air for his Portland Timbers teammates, and has been equally adept with both feet in front of goal. Loaned to the Timbers by FC Copenhagen in the summer of 2014, Adi has been remarkably prolific and in just three seasons has become the all-time leading scorer for the Oregon team, with 47 goals scored to date. Goals, such as this gem earlier in the season, show how nimble, for a big centre forward, Adi is.
After helping the Timbers win the MLS championship in 2015, Adi gave the powers-that-be a reason to open up the cheque book and make him a designated player (A player with a salary or transfer fee that is above a certain amount, which will be carried outside of the team salary cap). Now the former Nigeria U23 striker is tormenting MLS defenders as he attempts to help the third-placed Timbers secure another MLS title.
Kei Kamara (Sierra-Leone – Centre forward – New England Revolution)
After moving to America as a teenager, the Sierra Leone-born striker has spent the past few years developing and refining his ability and athleticism, to the point where the former college player and MLS nomad (drafted by the Columbus Crew in 2009, moved to San Jose, Houston, and then Sporting Kansas City) earned a transfer to English side Middlesbrough in 2013, following a short loan spell with Premier League side Norwich City.
After plying his trade at Boro for two seasons, Kamara returned to MLS and proceeded to have his best season ever in 2015, scoring 22 goals to help the Crew reach the MLS Cup final. Now playing for the New England Revolution, Kamara is an important part of a team seeking its first MLS championship.
Kamara has made several appearances for the Sierra Leone national team and has four international goals for the Leone Stars. His commitment to his motherland is evident not just with his appearances for his national team but also in his off-pitch work. Along with former MLS player and fellow Sierra Leonean Michael Lahoud, Kamara helped build the Kei Kamara-Michael Lahoud Education for All School in Allentown, just west of the capital, Freetown.
Jonathan Mensah and Harrison Afful (Ghana – Defenders – Columbus Crew)
Columbus has become home to a growing Ghanaian community in the United States and over the past two years, two prominent Ghanaians have made the capital of Ohio their home too. Black Stars defenders Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah are key members of a Columbus Crew backline that has the team at fourth in the standings.
The 30-year-old Afful joined Columbus in the summer of 2015 and the right-back played his part in helping the team get to the MLS Cup that season. He came over from Tunisian side Esperance after notching 183 appearances with the legendary African team. Add in his 65 caps for Ghana and it’s easy to see how the veteran provides a steady presence on the right side of the pitch for Crew.
Afful’s 2014 FIFA World Cup teammate Mensah made the move to MLS this January, prior to the start of the season. The 26-year-old had a disappointing spell with Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala last season and is rebuilding his game and his confidence in Columbus. Mensah’s experience (51 caps for Ghana) and physicality on the pitch have been ever-present for the Crew this season and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to expect the duo to help the Crew improve on the three clean-sheets and 13 goals conceded so far this season.
Darlington Nagbe (Liberia – Midfielder – Portland Timbers)
MLS is enjoying an influx of talented, creative midfielders who can turn any game around in a flash, with a mazy run and assist one minute or a golazo the next. Darlington Nagbe is one such player.
Born in Monrovia, Liberia, the midfielder moved to the United States at age 11 and further developed his skills playing college soccer at Akron University for his current MLS coach, Caleb Porter. Drafted by the Portland Timbers in 2011, Nagbe showed a glimpse of the skill he possesses when he scored the Goal of the Year during his rookie season. Six years on, Nagbe has finally cultivated the skill to go with the flash as he currently has two goals and three assists this season.
In 2015, Nagbe earned his United States citizenship and has since been called up to play for the USA 14 times. His talent has seen him flirt with a move to Europe, but a trade to Celtic in the Scottish Premier League fell through.
The son of former Liberia star Joe Nagbe, Darlington will likely find multiple European suitors in the off-season, so if a Timbers game is on the schedule, tune in to see Darlington pull off goals.