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North Wales to New York: Onua Obasi's Winding Road Through Football

From the obscurity of Welsh second division football to making inroads in U.S. soccer, Onua Obasi's journey has been anything but simple. That, however, has helped the Englishman to appreciate his good fortune.
December 30, 2015, 2:11pm
Image via www,obasisoccerusa.com

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In a sparse, bright living room in New York, Gabrielle Obasi climbs up on to his dad's shoulders and bats keenly at his eyes for attention. Minutes later, the father hollers through to the adjacent room to double-check with his wife, with more than a hint of embarrassment, exactly how long they've been married. The scene is domestic, comforting and settled. But it wasn't always this way for Onua Obasi.

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Five years ago, the Birmingham-born full-back was playing in the amateur Welsh second division, wistfully contemplating where life was taking him. Football had offered some heady highs, grinding lows and an arena in which to express his intuitive flair, but never a realistic shot at a career.

Then his life changed.

"His name was Stefan Klukowski," says Obasi, remembering his days in far-away North Wales. "He'd done four years on a scholarship in America and I asked if he could help hook me up. He bent over backwards for me and suddenly there was this guy from Connecticut watching me play on this muddy pitch in Wales. He'd come all the way over just to see me, it was crazy. Then I was being offered a scholarship. That's how it began."

Klukowski had been a university flatmate for Obasi, but it was his link to the U.S. college system via his brother Jan that kicked the door wide open for a move to the States.

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"He always stood out as a special player," remembers Klukowski with a nostalgic fondness, "especially with his links to England Futsal. When he mentioned that he was thinking about heading to the USA, I said that my brother would be the perfect guy to speak to. Then, all of a sudden, scouts had arrived to watch Onua and were impressed enough to offer him a route into soccer in the U.S."

During the 2015 season, Obasi was one of the more eye-catching performers in the United Soccer League (USL), helping Rochester Rhinos to sweep the championship and regular season titles. In a summer during which the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard pitched up on bloated contracts, Obasi's story is a fragile reminder of how the game functions at the other end of the scale.

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A young man in a foreign country thousands of miles from home and with a young family to support, Obasi's football ambitions have forever been part of a much wider compromise.

"When I moved over in 2010 I was at Central Connecticut State University on a soccer scholarship. By the time I came out of it a little over two years later I'd met my wife and my son was about to be born, but I wasn't thinking about much more than 'how can I extend playing football just a little longer while still moving forward with my life?' It was all just a means to the end of playing football, really.

"My future was kind of mapped out back in Liverpool where I was at university, then suddenly I had to make a choice: settle down here or go and play soccer."

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The jump from college to the professional leagues wasn't a smooth transition, however – the links between schools and the clubs, Obasi feels, aren't what they once were – and fortune played a big part.

"I was only at a small college and we weren't ever playing in the national tournaments, so no one ever really saw me play. There was another kid on my team at Connecticut just as good as me [who] could easily have been a pro, but it never happened for him because he wasn't seen."

Upon finishing college, Obasi didn't make the draft for Major League Soccer and a life on the fringes of the game, while working as a grad assistant, beckoned. With a young wife and child to consider, football suddenly seemed not to be the priority it once was. What he did make, however, was the acquaintance of Matt Svanda, an amateur coach who felt strongly enough about the young Englishman to make him his protégé.

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"When I took the grad assistant post after my son was born, I thought, 'there's no way I can support a family and play'. Even if there was an offer, it felt impossible. And if you're foreign over here that's another obstacle, because clubs have to pay for your visa. I thought, 'I've had a good run but now it's time to get real.'"

Then Svanda came along.

"It was just a chance meeting playing pick-up soccer. He said, 'you're too good for this level, I'm going to get you a professional trial.' I thought there was no chance, but I went along with him. He really came through for me, got me on trial here and then I signed professionally in January of last year. He's my son's godfather now, actually."

Photo: USA Today Sports

For every young overseas player that makes it, however, there are others whose risks don't pay off. Reece Wilson headed to the States at around the same age and on similar terms to Obasi, but after a series of setbacks found his soccer career in bits.

"I signed with an agency who got me into a college in Mississippi," he says. "The plan was always that I would try and play professionally after graduating, but things never went my way."

After graduating college Wilson wound up playing professionally in Costa Rica, but on lousy terms and for wages that arrived only sporadically. Just a few months in he packed his bags and headed back to the States, where he now runs a coaching academy in Texas. These are the margins for young overseas players; Wilson was never in the right place at the right time.

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Back in New York, Obasi is no stranger to showing the kind of superhuman conviction necessary to make that gamble pay, but just as necessary to his story has been the faith shown by those in his life. The full-back found himself with a family to look out for just a short time after his move to the US, and a career in the game has always had to sit alongside domestic life.

"I'd be lying if I said that soccer hadn't placed a strain on us early on," says Staci, his wife. "When I was pregnant with our first child, I urged Onua to lean towards a 9-5 because we were both fresh out of college, no careers, no money to our names, and about to have a baby."

The stress of the uncertain early days echoes through both sides of the story, a stark reminder of the brittle contingencies that divide success from failure.

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"When I was coming towards the end of college and I found out my wife was pregnant, that was when I really thought, 'I've fucked up here. I've had a right nightmare.' We were young, arguing a lot and there was a kid on the way, plus there was no sign of my soccer career taking off."

Did it ever look like coming to a premature end?

"Yes" concedes Staci, "it really did for a while. But, shortly after he started his first pro season, I realised he'd made a great decision and we would get on just fine. The soccer has been nothing but a blessing to our family. Onua gets to do what he absolutely loves, I get to stay home with the babies, and we're all together. I don't think it can get much better than that."

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And what of Obasi the footballer? The USL may be just a step down from MLS, but it also represents the bottom rung of the professional game in a sport where the links between promising college players and the top teams have been systematically weakened. How has growing up and learning the game in Europe prepared the tricky full-back for life in US football?

"Over here the coach is very, very tough, but the points about the game that he makes are faultless. I've learned so much from the message he puts across and it all seems so simple. The game itself isn't as hard as I used to think it was."

The season's end brought a trial with Philadelphia Union and a shot, finally, at MLS. But, with the off-season still in its early days, Obasi has a wait on his hands before finding out where he'll be turning out in 2016. More of the steady progress that transformed him from a non-league hopeful in muddy Wales to a rising star of the US game would be welcomed in the new year; it would also represent a fitting reward for a defender who shone as his side set a USL record of just 15 goals conceded throughout 2015.

Fortune favours those with brave, broad shoulders. As the superstar imports from Europe prepare for their first full seasons in the US, Obasi's story is a tidy reminder that a part of the game still belongs to the underdog.

@hoovesonfire