Sandals, suitcases and snow: The rise of Gale Agbossoumonde
From emerging as one of the USAÃ¢ÂÂs most exciting defensive talents, to being stuck on the bench of a struggling MLS franchise, 21-year-old Gale Agbossoumonde has led a varied existence.
When he was still an infant, Agbossoumonde's family were forced to flee war-torn Togo for neighbouring Benin, while his father, a General in the army, was forced to remain. During seven years spent in a refugee camp, the footballs he played with were made of melted rubber, paper bags and newspaper - far removed from the professionally hand stitched variety he would later use on state-of-the-art training pitches.
Just as AgbossoumondeÃ¢ÂÂs testing childhood seemed to relent, his father Koku died of cancer of the esophagus. Several months later he was afforded the chance of a new life by the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement program : Ã¢ÂÂWe had no idea what to expect. It was just basically a huge leap of faith,Ã¢ÂÂ he explained to FourFourTwo.
The leap involved a trans-atlantic flight to Syracuse, New York, via Portugal, and an alien culture from the one he had just departed. Yet, clad in a pair of shorts and well-worn sandals, it was the weather that hit him first. A childhood spent in Africa had prepared him for many things, but New YorkÃ¢ÂÂs bitter winter was not one of them.
The changes were stark, especially for his mother: Ã¢ÂÂIt was very hard on my mom,Ã¢ÂÂ he explains. Ã¢ÂÂShe worked two jobs to support my family. I have five older brothers and two sisters so it was a big family and she basically supported us all.Ã¢ÂÂ
Agbossoumonde in training with the USA ahead of his full debut in 2010
Growing up in what had become a single-parent family meant money was tight, meaning the kindness of strangers was always appreciated. His first visit to the local park saw a chance meeting with the youth coach of Ã¢ÂÂEastside SoccerÃ¢ÂÂ that with hindsight now seems seminal. Ã¢ÂÂMy family had moved in February and this was around the end of April. It was our first time going to the park,Ã¢ÂÂ he remembers, before adding: Ã¢ÂÂMaybe it was destiny.Ã¢ÂÂ
The brothers were approached and asked to join the team. Despite having upgraded from sandals to a pair of Converse, the eight-year-old was still lacking the finances required to fund kit and league fees. Ã¢ÂÂAfter training he took us and bought us boots and he paid for all our stuff and helped us out, he knew we couldnÃ¢ÂÂt afford it,Ã¢ÂÂ he explains.
Moving into his teens he accepted an offer from the IMG academy in Bradenton, Florida, and was forced to adjust once again: Ã¢ÂÂYouÃ¢ÂÂre basically locked in [to the academy] and all you do is play football then sleep. Go to school, then come back. You canÃ¢ÂÂt leave the campus, itÃ¢ÂÂs like jail,Ã¢ÂÂ he says, surprisingly with a laugh.
In 2009, rather than sign with Major League Soccer, he joined NASL side Miami FC, before embarking on a series of loan spells with Braga, Djurgardens and Eintracht Frankfurt. While he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt admit it openly, there's a hint that perhaps he has a tinge of regret at the way his European excursions panned out. Ã¢ÂÂI was like a Gypsy living out of a suitcaseÃ¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂve seen different things and seen different people and its moulded me as a person to accept different cultures.Ã¢ÂÂ
Despite tasting life in Germany, Sweden and Portugal, his lack of playing time remained an issue. Yet he won the US Soccer Federation's Young Male Athlete of the Year in 2010 (previous winners included Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and DeMarcus Beasley) and also had solid appraisals from then US national team youth coach Thomas Rongen and former US International John Harkes.
Agbossoumonde (centre) in action for Toronto against FC Dallas
For those very reasons, Toronto fans were pleased to see Agbossoumonde arrive at their club in December 2012. The culturally diverse city seems an apt home for a man with such a past. His initial impressions of new coach Ryan Nelsen have been good. Ã¢ÂÂI talk to him when I have questions and he tells me things,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂHeÃ¢ÂÂs very vocal to me and the other centre backs.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂNellyÃ¢ÂÂs [Nelsen's] accent is quite strong. I have to listen quite closely when heÃ¢ÂÂs talking to me, otherwise IÃ¢ÂÂm, like, what?Ã¢ÂÂ he admits, before eliciting a hearty chuckle. But the help doesnÃ¢ÂÂt stop there. Former Toronto teammate Julio Cesar (the one-time Real Madrid defender, not to be confused with the QPR goalkeeper) will often call Agbossoumonde to dissect his performance, as will former Stoke City man Darrell Russell.
Described as a joker by former coaches, Agbossoumonde's desire to remain positive is admirable. Given his complex past it can be easy to forget he is just 21, until discussion of his hobbies surfaces: Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂm the FIFA King!Ã¢ÂÂ he proudly exclaims.
Relaxed in his demeanor, this is a facet of his game that is often noted. As is being described as a player with Ã¢ÂÂpotentialÃ¢ÂÂ. Already a full US International, he is now fighting against those who talk only of his future. Ã¢ÂÂTheyÃ¢ÂÂre all saying Ã¢ÂÂhe has so much potentialÃ¢ÂÂ, like IÃ¢ÂÂm not here,Ã¢ÂÂ he says. Ã¢ÂÂTheyÃ¢ÂÂre not looking at the fact IÃ¢ÂÂm here because I can play now.Ã¢ÂÂ
His goal is to convince Nelsen that his potential has already been realised. Then perhaps one day he can follow in his coach's footsteps and be a success in Europe too.