Gale Agbossoumonde learned a lot in his two years playing soccer abroad. But those watching his career’s twists and turns still hope to learn more about him.
Agbossoumonde, 20, has been followed by those who see a future for him on the U.S. men’s soccer team. But his stops at three large European clubs in recent years yielded little playing time. Saturday’s home match will equal the most games he’s played with one squad.
Although playing time is why he’s with the RailHawks, his globe-trotting career path isn’t as simple as finding a place to get on the field.
Agbossoumonde has chased opportunities, but his potential hasn’t been realized. Scrutiny and criticism have trailed him.
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But No. 17 for the orange-and-white still wears an easy-going grin tucked in the left corner of his mouth. The smile isn’t in spite of his difficult journey; it’s often because of it.
When Agbossoumonde was 8, he, his mother and seven brothers and sisters came to Syracuse from Togo as part of a Catholic Youth Organization ministry that gives refugees a home and helps them settle. His father had died nine months earlier.
That time in his life was tough, but Agbossoumonde takes an optimistic view.
“I could still be in Africa right now, probably not playing soccer or dead,” he said. “Life could be different. I just look on the positive side, just happy all the time.”
And for a while, there was much to be happy about – especially when it came to soccer.
After exemplary play at the club, high school and U.S. U-20 team level, he signed in 2009 with Traffic Sports USA, a sports agency that holds the rights to some professional soccer players and transfers them to teams worldwide. He was 17.
His professional debut came shortly thereafter with Miami FC – now the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers – a team owned by Traffic Sports. He played six games.
In 2010, Traffic Sports transferred Agbossoumonde to Sporting Braga, a renowned Portuguese team.
But just as he started to impress team officials, a knee injury cut short his season. The coach who favored Agbossoumonde left in the offseason, and the team decided not to keep him.
As Traffic Sports continued to get tryouts for Agbossoumonde, none resulted in a contract, and he began to grow bitter. He questioned Traffic’s handling of his rights in an ESPN.com article that appeared the same day he played his first and only game on the senior national team. The highlight of his playing career became his most infamous.
He’s since tried to make amends, saying he was too young to understand.
“It was out of anger,” said Agbossoumonde. “It’s not like they’re bad people at all.
“I said some things that I shouldn’t have said. I was 18. I learned from it, and moved on. And I learned from it. I think twice about things I say before I say them, about things off the field, things that I can’t control.”
Despite the turmoil, Agbossoumonde’s standout play on the U-20 team that year earned him the 2010 U.S. men’s soccer young male athlete of the year award.
A fresh start
In 2011, Agbossoumonde played eight games for Djurgården in Stockholm. Again, an injury sidelined him, and the team did not exercise his option.
Later that year, he signed with Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany. Due to a center back-heavy roster, he didn’t crack the lineup and played just one game for the club’s U-23 team.
Three years abroad and he had just nine games to show for it. Agbossoumonde wanted to come home.
“I felt like I should go back to where it all started, get a new beginning and start fresh,” he said.
“I’ve trained with good quality players, but there’s a difference between just training and the games. The games are where you learn. So I feel like I’m falling behind.”
The logical fit was the RailHawks, given their track record for developing players. The team, also owned by Traffic Sports, has sent 12 players to higher divisions in the last three years.
“It’s an opportunity to prove myself once again. Not that I proved myself in the past, but I was on a path to do that and then things happened,” Agbossoumonde said. “This is a great opportunity for me to prove myself and then get back to where I want to be.”
But the move to the second division also came with second-guessing.
Many wondered why a player with such promise wouldn’t aspire to play in Major League Soccer. Before his move to Carolina, ESPN ranked Agbossoumonde as the 10th-best American player younger than 21.
But a quest for an MLS spot would mean he could not choose which team he would play for. A team could put a claim on him and have first rights of refusal.
“I wouldn’t be sure which team I would end up (with). I could end up on a team where I would sit the bench again, and I didn’t want that to happen,” Agbossoumonde said.
With no such rules in the North American Soccer League, Agbossoumonde took control of his situation and headed to Carolina.
Things didn’t start well in Carolina. A turf toe injury sidelined him for the RailHawks’ first seven games and kept him from trying out for the U.S. Olympic team.
He said he’s still not match-fit. He’s been given a red card, he said, and had a handball in the 90th minute to set up a game-winning penalty in the U.S. Open Cup.
“I haven’t done anything. There’s a lot to be accomplished,” Agbossoumonde said. “I want to put myself back into the national team picture.”
That humility has helped him mesh with players who are much like himself, out to prove they belong at a higher level.
“He’s taking so much stuff on board and he could easily turn around and say ‘Hey, I’ve got a cap. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve played with the big guys and I know what I’m talking about,’ ” RailHawks captain Kupono Low said. “He’s a very humble player, and that’s why he’s so good for us.”
In games that Agbossoumonde has started, the RailHawks are 4-2-1 and have given up just seven goals. In those he hasn’t, the team is 1-3-4 while giving up 16.
He still looks the part of a highly-regarded defender who signed his first contract at 17. At 6-feet-2-inches tall, he’s physically imposing. Yet he can possess the ball with a midfielder’s skill and find others with quick, accurate short passes. His speed allows him to make up ground if a player gets behind him, and his vertical leap allows him to clear away crossing passes.
“He’s a presence back there with his size and athleticism, his willingness to throw his body in to block balls or to head balls. His composure on the ball enables us to play it from the back,” said Carolina coach Colin Clarke. “He may have relied on his pace and athleticism, but the higher up he steps, that doesn’t happen. So he’s got to learn to read the game. He’s doing a good job, he’s getting better and he’s becoming more of a leader.”
Agbossoumonde is enjoying being in the states for the first time since he was 17. He goes home to Syracuse on weekends when the team doesn’t have a game.
His family has watched him play. So have the many U.S. soccer fans who have waited for him to evolve into a top national team player.
With the RailHawks, Agbossoumonde is finally finding the experience he’s sought all over the globe.