‘Come Play’: Where African Stars Are In Demand

Published 20 days ago
By Forbes Africa | Mark Gleeson
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Young African football stars are embracing the opportunity presented by Major League Soccer in North America as a stepping stone to the best clubs in Europe. FORBES AFRICA was in St Louis in Missouri in the United States for these exclusive interviews, and the numbers are big.

The recent arrival of Lionel Messi has distorted the image somewhat but the reality of Major League Soccer (MLS) in North America is it’s a league of rapidly growing potential, with increasingly promising talent and a stepping stone to the top leagues of Europe.

Football is finding increasing traction in a market where it used to be considered a minor sport and the MLS is changing its image from a league that was seen as the parking lot for fading superstars coming to the end of their careers and looking for a final pay day, to one where the dreams of young players can be realized.

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As a result, many young Africans are embracing the opportunity.

“To be honest, I had doubts in my mind because I thought the style of football was not anything like we do back home,” Njabulo Blom, the 23-year-old South African international midfielder who was sold by Kaizer Chiefs to St Louis City at the start of the season, tells FORBES AFRICA.

“I know that the MLS is not rated among the best leagues in the world but the standard of football is very good. It’s not what people think outside,” Blom adds from St Louis, the Midwestern city in the United States (US) where the local club have just joined the MLS and are making waves.

The numbers back him up. As per Forbes, the values of MLS franchises have jumped, since 2019, by 85% on average, with defending champions Los Angeles FC now valued at around $1 billion, breaking into the top 20 in the world. Another example is the value of Seattle Sounders has increased from $405 million to $850 million in just four years, with the team recently becoming the first American side to participate at the Club World Cup.

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Revenues have reportedly grown continuously, by 16.6% on average per year between 2007 and 2018 but the spectacular progress is reflected in the price of what new franchises are paying to join the league.

The 10 original clubs invested $10 million each when the league kicked off in 1996 but Portland and Vancouver paid $35 million in 2011. For Charlotte FC, who arrived in 2022, the bill amounted to $325 million.

Average attendances are around 22,000 spectators, a figure similar to France. The record for a single game is the 82,110 that turned out in July at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to watch the Los Angeles derby, dubbed ‘El Trafico’.

This year’s expansion side St Louis City are setting new standards with their sell-out stadium, a brand-new venue and a state-of-the-art training facility next door.

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They are coached by Johannesburg- born Bradley Carnell, who played for South Africa at the 2002 World Cup and had a successful career in the German Bundesliga after starting out as a 16-year- old professional at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

He later earned his coaching stripes as an assistant at Free State Stars and Orlando Pirates.

“They said the expansion job is one of the most difficult in any American sport, so good luck. I was like, ‘Ok’,” Carnell says.

“Then I met the ownership group and spoke to them about vision, passion and what we stand for. There was just too many similarities and synergy there for I think either party. Looking in hindsight, everything just panned out,” he adds.

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St Louis are the first new team in MLS history to win their opening five matches and are well-placed for the end of season playoffs.

But Carnell, in a long interview with FORBES AFRICA, insists on patience.

“Short-term, it’s about getting infrastructure, academy, style of play— check those boxes. Mid-term, be competitive — we’re checking that box as well. Now, long-term, can we be really successful? The goal is to be compared, one day, to those great teams in the league already.”

In his playing days, Carnell had a chance to move overseas after being spotted as a teenager when he was competing for South Africa at the under-20 level at a tournament in France.

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He thinks MLS offers the same chance to African players, especially those in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, which MLS clubs are now showing much more interest in. “We just have to lead by example,” he says of the growing South African numbers in the league.

“If we can now, you know, just be key ambassadors for our product back home, and to put other guys on the map because now there is slowly more chatter; there’s a couple of players that are on the radar.”

Last year Minnesota United bought Bongokuhle Hlongwane from Maritzburg United and in recent months the teenager Olwethu Makhanya has moved to Philadelphia Union, while the exciting Mamelodi Sundowns striker Cassius Mailula is now at Toronto FC.

The attraction of these players is their age. MLS rules allow clubs to take on more foreign players, as long as they are aged under-23, and it is here where Africans are in demand. Other top signings in recent months include Richard Odada (Kenya) and Prince Owusu, a German of

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Ghanaian descent, and all can expect to be in contention to move onto a club in Europe in a few years, if they perform.

All can be assured they are on a stage that offers a chance to move on to bigger and better vistas in Europe.

According to the league, in 2022, MLS paid $175 million in transfer/acquisition fees, and for the fourth consecutive year it set a new high for fees paid, double the amount of five years ago. Revenue generated for outgoing players in 2022 was around $100 million. This does not include sell- on fees for the likes of Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson or Crystal Palace’s Chris Richards.

The figures for 2023 will be higher, especially the sales of players to clubs in Europe.

Blom’s advice to compatriots offered the chance to play in the MLS is: “Come play, because it’s really a great stepping stone to grow. It’s like an introduction to a high level of football.”

Mailula, for one, heeded the advice even though he had become a regular with Mamelodi Sundowns and could have a comfortable time at home, where he had become an almost overnight star after just one season with the Pretoria club. “It was not an easy decision to take, but I feel like I need to get out of my comfort zone, to explore, to get closer to Europe,” he explains. “This is the right decision for my career, for my family also.”

With each excellent performance, of which there have been many this season, the South African players shine a further spotlight on the domestic league and will have more scouts looking at Africa as a fertile ground for young talent.

Hlongwane hit the headlines with his rush of goals in the Leagues Cup for Minnesota, appearing alongside Messi when they were joint top scorers in the competition.

How many South African players in the past have had such a platform? Very few, and certainly none in the last two decades.

The US has a reputation as a land of opportunity, with rags-to-riches tales possible. Football is the new platform for that and with the South African players earning upwards of R500,000 ($26,150) a month at their young age, they are living that dream.