by Neil Morris
Even at his young age, Agbossoumonde has already enjoyed and endured enough experiences to fill a lifetime. From fleeing his war-torn native Togo, where his father died when Agbossoumonde was only 7, to settling in upstate New York with his mother and seven siblings (his oldest sister still lives in Africa) to a still-nascent professional soccer career that is already the stuff of lore, the man nicknamed “Boss” has garnered a cult status in the American soccer landscape.
My meeting with Gale Agbossoumonde (pronounced ga-LAY ag-BOOS-ooh-mon-day) comes on the advent of the latest chapter in his professional odyssey. Two days before interviewing him at WakeMed Soccer Park, Agbossoumonde arrived in Cary to begin a season-long loan to the Carolina RailHawks.
It’s an interview in which the body language alone is telling. When reflecting on his childhood in Syracuse and introduction to youth soccer, a slight grin parts Agbossoumonde’s mouth, his eyes flickering with the memory of his uncomplicated introduction to the sport.
“Two weeks after we moved over, my brother and I went to a local park where we lived and were just kicking a ball to ourselves,” he recalls. “There was a recreational team playing nearby, and their coach saw us … and asked, ‘Do you want to come play with my team?’ We didn’t even have soccer shoes and were wearing normal clothes. So, we started playing with them and [the coach] was like, ‘Oh, you guys are pretty good; I want to sign you up for my team.’”
However, the moment certain buzzwords—MLS, Traffic, contract, media—are mentioned, Agbossoumonde’s affect visibly alters. His jaw tightens and eyelids narrow, his smile now replaced by pursed lips. It’s almost an involuntary defense mechanism born equally from lingering regret and chronic distrust.
Celebrity is the unavoidable price for being labeled a next big thing. Once a self-described “skinny, scrawny kid” who split time between defender and attacker, a growth spurt so pronounced it gave him Osgood-Schlatter disease at age 13 fixed Agbossoumonde’s path at center back. He moved to Bradenton, Fla. at 15 to join the prestigious IMG Soccer Academy. By age 17, Agbossoumonde’s 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound frame and uncanny technical skills led some to compare the budding center back to Oguchi Onyewu.
Agbossoumonde’s on-field promise has morphed into something of a quest, however, after he embarked on a career in Europe that quickly turned him into a footballing vagabond. This journey was punctuated by a notorious ESPN.com article in November 2010 that chronicled not only Agbossoumonde’s personal saga but, more provocatively, his thoughts on the strained relationship with Traffic Sports USA, the third-party holder of his transfer rights since 2009. (Traffic is also the major backer of the North American Soccer League and several of its teams, including the RailHawks.)
Earlier in 2009, Agbossoumonde was offered a long-term contract to play in Major League Soccer. Instead, he signed with Traffic Sports and launched a plan he hoped would enable him represent the U.S. in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt and then immediately begin his professional career in Europe.
“I thought before I went to the U-20 World Cup that I would just sign with [former USL-1 and Traffic-owned club] Miami FC so I could be sharp and conditioned before I went to the World Cup,” explains Agbossoumonde. “I did that because I knew I couldn’t sign with MLS and then leave for Europe, where I wanted to go right away. So, I decided if I sign with Miami, I could play a couple of months, stay sharp, play in the World Cup and then go to Europe.”
Agbossoumonde appeared in six matches for Miami FC in 2009. His first game was spent sitting on the bench during a 9-0 thrashing from the Carolina RailHawks, the last time he appeared in WakeMed Soccer Park.
“Then, I played in the World Cup—the team didn’t do so well but I did OK—and then [Sporting] Braga [a top Portuguese club], the team that wanted me the most, said I would for sure get an opportunity based on how I do with their first team,” continues Agbossoumonde.
“After two months I broke into the first team, but the week after that I partially tore my meniscus in my knee and was out for four or five months. Before I left the coach said I needed to be back in July for preseason, that they were happy with how I was playing prior to my injury and wanted to keep me. I had my recovery but before I went back they changed their manager and everything [changed].”
After the would-be transfer to Braga fell through, Agbossoumonde helped lead the U.S. U-20 team to victory in the 2010 Milk Cup. Awakening some of his dormant promise, he enjoyed a breakout performance, netting a goal in the championship game win over host side Northern Ireland. After earning his first senior-team cap for the U.S. National Team in a friendly against South Africa in November, Agbossoumonde was named the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 2010 Young Male Athlete of the Year, an honor previously won by Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, among others.
Then came the ESPN.com article. While Agbossoumonde admits “reactions weren’t good … from Traffic and MLS,” he waves off any invitation to supply specifics or comment further.
“I’ve said some things in the past I shouldn’t have said in the media,” he says. “You could say I was young, and the reporter kind of turn[ed] it a little bit, especially when that huge article came out. I learned from that, not to say things that you don’t want written in the media.”
Agbossoumonde was sent on loan to Sweden’s Djurgårdens IF in the spring of 2011, where he appeared in eight matches before leaving the beleaguered club in July 2011.
“There’s a lot more pressure playing overseas, especially coming from the fans,” he says. “When I was in Sweden we weren’t doing so well, and we had hooligans show up at the practices. The team’s director [Stefan Alvén] had to step down because some fans threatened to kill his family. So, it’s not easy over there, especially thinking about that. Imagine if you’re playing in a game and you make a mistake and the team loses. I had to think about that—if the team loses what are the fans going to do to me. It’s not easy, especially being in a country all by yourself.”
After trialing with several clubs, Agbossoumonde was sent on yet another loan last August, this time to second-division German side Eintracht Frankfurt, to play on its U-23 team, a five-month stint during which he appeared sparingly.
This spring, he comes to the RailHawks on loan from Estoril Praia, a second-tier club in Portugal. Before agreeing to come to Carolina, Agbossoumonde turned down another contract offer to play in MLS, just as he did back in the spring of 2009. Had he signed with MLS, it is his understanding that he would have been assigned a team via a weighted lottery, the sort of lack of self-determination Agbossoumonde has been trying to escape.
“I just wanted to keep my options open, because [the MLS deal] was a four- or five-year contract, as well,” says Agbossoumonde. “I was thinking I could go [to MLS], do my best, play well and then go somewhere else. But that wasn’t guaranteed … This is prime time for my development, so I signed with Carolina.”
Agbossoumonde says that while his options are limited by his contract with Traffic Sports, which expires later this year, he ultimately possesses the ability to decide where he’s willing to play.
“Traffic gave me the options of which teams wanted me,” he says. “They’ll tell you what’s best for them, but ultimately they can’t force you to do anything. So I always had the option, and coming here was my decision.
“I could have gone to any team that Traffic owns, but I wanted to come to Carolina because I know it’s a good organization, always had a good team and I saw the players they were signing. And I saw the coach who was coming in. All that made [my decision] clear-cut and easy.”
The coach Agbossoumonde refers to Colin Clarke, who is beginning his first year with the RailHawks after managing the Puerto Rico Islanders for five seasons.
“I know that all his teams have been successful,” Agbossoumonde says. “He’s had players who have gone from Puerto Rico to MLS. So it seems like he’s a good coach. I talked to him and seemed like a nice guy, and he’s really keen on having me here. So, it’s always nice to know that you’re wanted. He sees that I can play, and it seems like I’m the player that he wants to have on his team. I want to play for a coach who wants to have me.”
“For me, the important thing is for him to just get on the field and play,” says Clarke. “Forget about all the other stuff that’s going on in the background. It’s important that he’s on the field performing and playing in the next season. He’s got a big year coming up with the Olympics and a big year with us because he’s going to be playing and playing regularly. Get out there and enjoy your soccer again, and look forward to coming to practice and working hard every day.”
Agbossoumonde makes no bones about his future intentions. His sights are squarely set on making and playing for the U.S. Olympic team this summer, followed by signing with another team in Europe after his stint with the RailHawks ends, this time untethered from any external contractual entanglements. Should he make the Olympic team, that obligation might require him to miss a sizable portion of the RailHawks’ season—10 games is a “high-end estimate,” according to one team official, although Clarke contends the absences will not be so onerous.
For now, however, Agbossoumonde looks forward to his time with the RailHawks—“a new beginning” he recently called it on Twitter.
“I’ve been to Europe, but other than Braga I haven’t been playing—I’ve had, like, 10 games in two or three years. So, I just wanted to take a step back and [return] to where I started … and build my confidence up and make sure I’m sharp. And, NASL is not a bad soccer league at all. People might look at it like, ‘Oh, it’s second division in America.’ But a lot of players in MLS started here and then go to MLS and do well. I know I will get good competition and challenges every day, and I know Carolina is one of the better teams in the NASL.”
For Clarke, the short-term challenge for Agbossoumonde is a simple one.
“I think there’s been a lot of talk and a lot of stuff going on around him in the periphery that’s not done him any favors,” Clarke observes. “I’d like to think we can put all that aside and get people talking about him regarding how he’s playing on a week-to-week basis. There’s too much talk about other stuff—we need to be talking about Gale and about his play and great performances and what he’s doing on the field.”
“The last couple of years haven’t been exactly how I wanted them to be,” muses Agbossoumonde. “I just wanted to start over and start fresh. That’s why I came here and I know I’ll do well.
“I know I can’t control what happens off the field, so I just try my best to control what happens on the field.”
Two days following our interview, Agbossoumonde agreed to meet for a brief photo shoot. I unwittingly scheduled it during the Chelsea-Manchester United match, an oversight I apologized for.
“It’s OK,” he quickly responds. “I wasn’t watching the game anyway. I’m an Arsenal fan.”
That admission suddenly made me curious why Agbossoumonde did not train at one of the English football academies—including Arsenal—as a teenager, given his potential and clear desire to play in Europe.
Upon hearing that query, Agbossoumonde expels an almost imperceptible sigh.
“[Current Portland Timbers midfielder and U.S. youth international] Charles Renken and I were set to go over to there to train together. But at the last minute I decided not to go and went to Florida instead.”
“I was scared,” Agbossoumonde confesses, “and I didn’t want to be that far away from my family … I really believe things would be different now if I had gone over then.”
Before we part company, I share one more nagging thought. In 2009, his professional blueprint was to play for a short time with an American D2 club in preparation for an international competition, after which he would sign with a club team in Europe. Today, under the guise of a new start, he’s marching down the same path. What makes him think this plan will work now when it didn’t the last time?
Agbossoumonde nods his head, recognizing both the merit and irony inherent to the question. The difference, he claims, is that this time he’ll be a free agent able to sign with any team he wants—as long as they want him, of course.
At one point between taking snapshots, I stopped for a moment to adjust my camera. When I looked back up, Agbossoumonde and a 9-year-old boy (this writer’s son) were standing about 10 feet apart casually passing a soccer ball to each other.
For all his travels, Gale Agbossoumonde is still not far-removed from the kid in the park kicking a ball around, waiting for a team that wants him to play.