I played one year of college soccer with Danny Mwanga at Oregon State University in 2010. I had transferred to OSU after my freshman season from a Division III school in Spokane, Washington. Danny was coming off his freshman season as well—a season that had seen him score four goals in 11 games en route to being named PAC-10 Freshman of the Year. By the time I arrived on campus he was being mentioned as a candidate for a Generation Adidas contract which would mean he would leave school early and head to the MLS.
The first time we stepped on the field that season I understood, the hype was real. Standing at 6’2” Danny was an imposing figure but he had the technical ability of a seasoned professional. I remember the first time he ran at me with the ball at his feet and I just thought to myself, “Oh shit.” We won’t go into detail on how that turned out.
He would give defenders the same feeling all season long, scoring 14 goals and being named PAC-10 Player of the Year as well as garnering a Second Team All-American selection. As the season drew to a close the writing on the wall became more and more legible; he wouldn’t wait to step into the professional ranks. He signed a Generation Adidas contract.
When the MLS Super draft happened the OSU team gathered in the locker room to watch as expansion side Philadelphia Union stepped up and selected Danny with the number one overall pick. I’m from Montana and I have to say, for a kid who grew up playing in the mountains, it was a surreal experience to play with the nation’s best college player for a year.
Beyond being an incredible talent, Danny Mwanga had an incredible story. When he became a US citizen in 2013 he sat down with MLS Insider and told them a bit about his journey to the United States. His father was a political figure in the DRC and amidst the civil unrest in the 90’s, he went to work one day and never returned home. Fearing for the safety of Danny and his siblings, his mother left them in the care of his grandmother and moved to Portland in January of 2001. It would be five years before she could bring them all to Oregon.
When Danny arrived, he spoke hardly a word of English but his skills would do the talking and word soon spread through Portland that there was an incredibly skilled young African player who would appear in the parks. His initial ‘discovery’ came at a Timbers tryout. Cony Konstin, a director for Westside Metros, a prominent youth club in Portland was the first to see him and snap him up for his club. When I spoke to him on the phone he recalled the first time he saw Danny.
“I saw him at this tryout way back when. He had been brought there by the coach of an African adult league team if I remember right. I was blown away by his talent but I had no idea how old he was. When I talked to the coach he told me Danny was fifteen. I was like ‘What the f%*k?’”
He was blown away. Playing with grown men, the 15-year-old looked right at home with his technical ability and strength. Cony immediately recruited him to play for Westside. He would be placed on the team of Monty Hawkins. A man who would take Danny under his wing and become a pivotal figure in the young player’s life for years to come.
Cony Konstin would contact Dana Taylor, the head coach at Oregon State University, and tell him that he had found a player who would light up the PAC-10. Taylor would travel to Portland to watch Danny play in a men’s league game. Standing with Konstin on the sidelines Danny picked up the ball near the halfway line and blew past three players with ease. Taylor turned to Konstin and nodded. The rest was history.
Another story I heard from Danny was from his high school playing days. As we all limped around the soccer house in Corvallis and stretched after a long day of pre-season, Danny showed up at the front door. In his French-accented English he told us of his first game playing for Jefferson High School.
“People had heard about me and the touchlines of our first game were crowded. The first time I received the ball—with my first touch I nutmegged one player. With my second touch I nutmegged the next. Those were my first two touches in high school soccer.” I’m paraphrasing of course—this was ten years ago, but that was the gist of the story and I didn’t doubt it for one second especially considering that he would go on to score a staggering 53 goals in nine games.
As I played more and more with him I learned what it meant to be an elite player. It wasn’t just the moments that made people ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ or watching him breeze by players as if they weren’t even there. It was the day-in and day-out commitment to excellence in the most minor things. Every pass, every touch, every dribble was always done with extreme focus and in the one year I was fortunate enough to spend with him I learned so much.
Danny wouldn’t disappoint in his rookie campaign in Philadelphia. He finished the season with seven goals and four assists and was one of three finalists for the MLS Rookie of the Year at the age of 18. In 2012, it was time for Danny to come home. The Timbers traded for him and he returned to the Pacific NW. Watching as Danny scored a screamer against San Jose I would think about what an incredible journey he had travelled. From the dangers of a civil conflict in Africa that claimed the life of his father to becoming the number 1 overall draft pick in the MLS, from playing by himself in the park to scoring at Providence Park.
Danny would go on to play for the Colorado Rapids, Orlando City, New York Cosmos, Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies but a persistent groin injury would force him into an early retirement. Regardless, Danny Mwanga should be regarded of as an incredible talent and a quality human being. It was an honor to be able to call him a teammate for a year, and it should be an honor for Portland to claim him as one of their own.