Sandals, suitcases and snow: The rise of Gale Agbossoumonde

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From emerging as one of the USA’s 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 Agbossoumonde’s 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 : “We had no idea what to expect. It was just basically a huge leap of faith,” 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 York’s bitter winter was not one of them.

The changes were stark, especially for his mother: “It was very hard on my mom,” he explains. “She 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.”

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 ‘Eastside Soccer’ that with hindsight now seems seminal. “My family had moved in February and this was around the end of April. It was our first time going to the park,” he remembers, before adding: “Maybe it was destiny.”

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. “After training he took us and bought us boots and he paid for all our stuff and helped us out, he knew we couldn’t afford it,” he explains.

Moving into his teens he accepted an offer from the IMG academy in Bradenton, Florida, and was forced to adjust once again: “You’re basically locked in [to the academy] and all you do is play football then sleep. Go to school, then come back. You can’t leave the campus, it’s like jail,” 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 doesn’t admit it openly, there's a hint that perhaps he has a tinge of regret at the way his European excursions panned out. “I was like a Gypsy living out of a suitcase” he said. “I’ve seen different things and seen different people and its moulded me as a person to accept different cultures.”

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. “I talk to him when I have questions and he tells me things,” he said. “He’s very vocal to me and the other centre backs.”

“Nelly’s [Nelsen's] accent is quite strong. I have to listen quite closely when he’s talking to me, otherwise I’m, like, what?” he admits, before eliciting a hearty chuckle. But the help doesn’t 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: “I’m the FIFA King!” 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 ‘potential’. Already a full US International, he is now fighting against those who talk only of his future. “They’re all saying ‘he has so much potential’, like I’m not here,” he says. “They’re not looking at the fact I’m here because I can play now.”

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.