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Thursday, January 14, 2010
ESPNsoccernet: January 15, 5:26 PM UK
Mwanga expected to lead the Union's offense

Leander Schaerlaeckens

PHILADELPHIA -- The 100 or so Philadelphia Union fans who showed up at the Pennsylvania Convention Center had been chanting his name for hours. "Oooh! Dannyyy Mwaaanga!" echoed through the tinny lobby an hour before the draft started.

A visibly nervous Mwanga (pronounced muh-WAH-ngah) climbed the stage when his name was called first, leaned over the microphone and thanked everybody he needed to thank, prompting an overjoyed dance by his mother and sisters. He never cracked a smile on the stage nor as he strolled through the horde of reporters, clutching a new Union jersey, unworn -- like all other Union uniforms -- with his name and No. 10 emblazoned on it.

This is not the biggest thing that's ever happened in Danny Mwanga's life.

When days, then years, come and go without word of what happened to your father, who is missing and presumed dead, you don't sweat the little things, like being picked first in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. That's not a knock on MLS, whose 2010 expansion team, the Philadelphia Union, selected Mwanga with the first overall pick Thursday in what many are calling the strongest MLS draft class ever.

It's just that Danny Mwanga misses his father. Belmond Mwanga was an adviser to Joseph-Desire Mobutu, a dictator who ruled the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- called Zaire during Mobutu's reign -- with an iron fist for almost 32 years before being overthrown in 1997. Following Mobutu's exile, Belmond disappeared, as most cronies tend to after a coup.

"I miss him. I wish he were here today," Mwanga said in French. Although his English is excellent, Mwanga still jumps at any chance to speak his mother tongue. Those who doubt that Mwanga is 18 -- and some do -- have but to look at his boyish looks and his pronounced cheekbones, which punctuate a face he hasn't quite grown into yet. He's coy and soft-spoken. If you want to be able to hear what Mwanga has to say, you need to sidle up to him. Whenever his father is mentioned, he lowers his gaze to the ground and turns the volume down even further. "I don't like to talk about it," he said.

After his father's disappearance in 1998, Mwanga's mother fled to America. They hadn't seen each other in five years when Danny, whose given name is Jean-Marie Daniel, was awarded refugee status and followed. Not long after arriving in 2006, Mwanga fell into Monty Hawkins' lap. Mwanga, just 15, had been offered a chance to play professionally for the second-tier Portland Timbers, but was told he'd be better off conserving his college eligibility and playing in a youth system. That brought him to the Westside Metro Club, where Hawkins coached the U-16 boys team.

"He didn't have a way to get anywhere," Hawkins said. "He spoke hardly any English, and the family that he was living with at the time, his sister and brother-in-law, they had a young daughter. So I gave him rides."

Hawkins became a surrogate father figure. "Danny was in a brand-new place," Hawkins said. "He just needed a support system to help him in America. He was a foreigner in a foreign land, and his family wasn't quite here yet. I don't think he, outside of knowing some common phrases, spoke anything but Congolese and French."

Mwanga dominated club and high school soccer, at one point scoring 53 goals in nine games for Portland's Jefferson High School. "It was obvious that this was a pro soccer player playing with 15-year-old kids," Hawkins said.

When his mother, Leontine, insisted that he extend his stay at Jefferson and put off college for another year, an intense recruiting war broke out. But Mwanga had already committed to Oregon State, which had signed him very early, and he didn't waver when he had the chance to reconsider.

At Oregon State, he scored four goals in 11 games and was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year despite missing a sizable chunk of the season because his official transcripts had not yet come through from Congo, putting his athletic eligibility on hold. A sophomore year that yielded 14 goals in 18 games and a Pac-10 Player of the Year award put him on the radar of Peter Nowak, who had been appointed head coach of the Union. Mwanga was projected to be a second-round pick until Philadelphia began dropping hints that it might make him their first pick.

"I think he has a soccer brain," Nowak said when asked about Mwanga's biggest strength. "He reads the game very well, and he plays like he's thinking about the game a little bit faster than anybody else."

"He's as complete package as you want out of an 18-year-old," said Union CEO and part-owner Nick Sakiewicz.

"Danny makes his plays from instincts and not just skill level and athleticism. He just happens to be 6-foot-2. I think that separates him from everybody else," said Steve Simmons, Mwanga's coach at OSU. "He's strong, he's fast, his footwork is superb, [and] he can tackle. He works his socks off, and for a kid with his talent, that's rare."

In addition to his polished skills and lust for labor on the field, his coaches rave about Mwanga's maturity. "Danny, for being 18, is beyond his years as far as maturity, and I think that will give him a shorter learning curve than most," Simmons said. "What he did with his club team and Oregon State was put the team on his back in a very unassuming way."

Hailing from a family that puts a premium on education, Mwanga had already wrapped up high school back in Congo when he came to America at age 15. His mother insisted he spend more time in high school to perfect his English and solidify his college credentials. As such, the 18-year-old sophomore (he turns 19 in July), who sported a 4.0 GPA in high school and a 3.1 in college, could have been a college senior this year.

Although this is the stuff American dreams are made of, America's soccer fans might find themselves dreaming of Mwanga for much longer than he dreams of America. Mwanga, like many African boys growing up, wants to play in France. And if it weren't for Nowak's recruiting efforts, that's exactly where he would have been right now, after trials were arranged with French First Division clubs Auxerre and Lille and French Second Division club Strasbourg and a traineeship had been offered to him by Blackburn Rovers in England.

It's not often that a No. 1 draft pick has to be persuaded to be included in the draft at all. "Danny wasn't sure if it was a good thing to sign with Major League Soccer," Nowak said. "In the conversation we had … [I] indicated that it could be his chance to establish himself first before he goes anywhere else."

"He told me it would be easier to adapt [to the professional game] here," Mwanga says of Nowak's sales pitch. "I'd have my family here to help me. He said it would be better to be able to play straightaway and that he thinks I'm good enough to do that and that it would be better to play in America than to go to Europe and play with the reserves."

Convinced, Mwanga blew off his French trials and signed a two-year contract with two additional mutual option years with MLS on a Generation Adidas contract, meant for promising college underclassmen, that will pay him a rumored $200,000 a year.

That's not to say he won't leave for France eventually. "I grew up wanting to play in France," Mwanga says. So is the plan now to spend a few years in MLS in order to get ready for a move to Europe? "Yes, exactly," Mwanga says. "I'd like to play for Marseille. And it's a dream for me to play for Chelsea."

Philadelphia expects him to stay. "All of it," Sakiewicz said, when asked him much of his contract he expected Mwanga to serve with Philadelphia. "We're looking at this player as a long-term player for us."

When Mwanga is finally done with the endless string interviews on draft day, a boy asks him for his autograph and a picture. "I'm not used to this yet," Mwanga said as he scribbled his name into a notebook. "I have to practice."

He'll have plenty of chances to work on his signature. Whether American fans will have as many chances to ask him for it is another matter. If he is what they say he is, Mwanga won't be long for MLS.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com.




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