Lansing United head coach/GM Eric Rudland had seen the tapes, heard the scouting reports. He knew Freddy Gomes was a quality player on the field. He just had to make sure Gomes was a good character off it.
“So tell me,” Rudland said as his first phone conversation with Gomes came to an end. “Everyone says [Stephen] Owusu is the fastest player in the conference. You’ve been telling me all about how quick you are. Who’s faster?”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line.
“I’m not going to mess with you, Coach,” Gomes replied. “Stephen’s faster than I am.” And that was when Rudland knew he’d found the honest guy he’d been looking for.
After he put pen to paper, Freddy Gomes became the last of three players from the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO) to sign with Lansing United for the 2015 season, joining midfielder Liam Madden and forward Stephen Owusu. Since their arrival the trio has been a crucial part of United’s success.
But how did three international players from France, Scotland and Ghana respectively all find their way to the same small college in rural Oklahoma, let alone Lansing?
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) doesn’t receive a lot of publicity. Many Americans consider it a step below the NCAA, and that makes it difficult to recruit top homegrown talent. That led USAO head coach Jimmy Hampton to the methods he uses today.
“In order to compete for an NAIA national title you’d have to be able to get the absolute top Americans in the country,” Hampton says. “[Those players] will typically wind up at a Duke or a UCLA.”
Top American talent heads to top American institutions, Hampton says. That’s why when he started the men’s soccer program at USAO 15 years ago, he looked outside the United States, a strategy he says isn’t unique to his own program.
“If you go to the NAIA national tournament, my guess is 85 percent of the starters on the teams are going to be international kids,” he says.
Over the years Hampton has built a network of coaches throughout Europe and Africa that he and his four assistants use to find players. Those nations, drenched in soccer culture, are rich in talent.
The strategy has paid off. USAO has won the Sooner Athletic Conference in more than half of its 15 seasons and is a regular at the NAIA national tournament, where they’ve made it to the final eight twice and are on the hunt for their first national title.
USAO and other NAIA programs have one crucial advantage in attracting international talent: the chance to play and learn at the same time.
“In the United States you can do soccer and university on the same basis. You don’t do that in Europe,” says Madden, who played for Celtics Academy in Scotland. “It’s either you’re really good at soccer and you go professional, or you don’t make it and you go to university and get a job.”
Clubs overseas identify players around ages 14-16 for professional contracts. By age 18, contractless youth players have reached a dead end, even if they’re still incredibly talented players. In the United States they have the chance to continue to play.
“There’s so much talent overseas that we think there’s a lot of kids who can eventually make it to the professional level, and college is the best avenue for that,” Hampton says.
College athletics also offer the security of a diploma in hand if things don’t work out.
“For all of us the dream is to become professionals, but it’s going to be really hard.” says Gomes, who grew up near Paris. “That’s why it’s really important to have the degree to finish with, if you can’t make it.”
Gomes, Madden and Owusu all loved the game and didn’t want to stop playing it, but couldn’t quite make it in their home countries. They also didn’t underestimate the value of a good education. When USAO’s scouting network found them each individually, it was a match made in heaven.
“Ever since I can remember, soccer has been my life,” says Owusu, who was looking for a way out of the conventional system in Kumasi, Ghana. “[Coach Hampton] asked if I wanted to play soccer in the United States at the same time as going to university and of course I said yes.”
A small school of roughly 1,000 students, USAO is 40 miles south of Oklahoma City in the rural farming town of Chickasha, Oklahoma, population 16,000. Needless to say, all three had a bit of a culture shock.
“No one walks anywhere, everyone has a car,” Madden says. “I never had a car, no one in my family had a car, since I’ve been born.”
Yet with the help of a strong team chemistry, the players quickly grew comfortable. With a roster almost entirely full of international players, Hampton says it’s easier to adjust than one might think.
“Although you’re in a rural area and the culture is different than maybe where you’re originally from, when you have other people around you who have the same background and you have a common goals, it makes the acclimation process easier,” he says.
On the field they’ve fit in just fine. All three have played nearly every game since they stepped on campus, and Madden and Owusu earned All-American honors last year.
To help prepare for his senior season, Madden began searching for a summer team and found the answer in Ross Lindsay, a teammate from back home in Scotland and a member of last season’s inaugural Lansing United roster. Lindsay, who plays at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, encouraged him to reach out to Rudland.
He did, and things soon fell into place. Through talking with Hampton about other players on his team, Rudland brought all three on board for Lansing’s second season.
From day one, the trio has been part of the United core group, with 26 appearances through 11 games. Owusu is the second leading goal-scorer, Gomes has played the second-most amount of minutes of anyone and Madden has anchored the midfield in all but a few games.
“They’ve been fantastic for us,” Rudland says.
After United’s last game of the season on July 19, the trio will next turn to preseason for their final campaign with USAO. Gomes, Madden and Owusu are all expected to be three crucial components in what Hampton hopes will be another deep run in the national tournament.
After that the future is a little more cloudy, but still optimistic.
“My guess is we just might see our boys dotting USL rosters in the next few years,” Hampton says. “In fact I’ll be shocked if Stephen [Owusu] doesn’t end with up with an MLS tryout.”
And if the dream of professional soccer doesn’t work out, that’s okay too. Now fully bilingual, Gomes is interested in pursuing a career in international business, and Madden and Owusu have plans to stay involved with the sport in other ways. On the field and in the classroom they’ve grown since crossing the Atlantic, and they’re ready for what the future holds.