Soccer helps refugee brothers move forward

By: Caleb Lamb, Jared Pomponio, Katya Rivera

SYRACUSE (NCC NEWS) - “Hey Mawuena! Mawuena!” The 19 year old turned and smiled, shaking his head. He’d heard the comparisons before, being called by his older brother’s name despite the fact that he stood three inches taller. “Sorry, I’m Gale,” he explained to the confused looking football player. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell them apart. Besides having similar appearances, the two brothers both have outgoing personalities and humble attitudes. At 6’2″, Gale (pronounced GAH-lay) Agbossoumonde looks like an athlete, but few would guess that he plays for the U.S. National Soccer Team. And the story of how he got there is even more unlikely.

Gale Agbossoumonde, central defender on the U.S. National Soccer Team

Gale and Mawuena were the youngest Adjo and Koku Agbossoumonde’s six sons. Originally from Togo, the family had to flee the country in the early 1990s. Their father, Koku, was one of the leaders of a military coup and the family fled to Benin after getting a tip from a family friend that the dictator might try to have them killed. “They (the living conditions) were terrible,” the boys’ mother, Adjo, said, “They were not good.” While living in a refugee camp the boys and their four brothers learned to play soccer on dirt fields with anything but a conventional soccer ball. “We played bare-footed, with tennis balls,” Mawuena said, “We made our own soccer balls out of socks and newspapers.” Ironically, their father wouldn’t let them play soccer, so the boys had to do it in secret. Koku was recruited for the military because of his athleticism as a boxer when he was younger, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen to his children.

After six years of living in the refugee camp, the family finally got their chance to come to the United States. The family was accepted into a program run by St. Francis Church in Bridgeport, a Catholic charity organization that helped move families to other countries. However, the family had to wait until the church found a sponsor in the U.S. that would assist them financially with the move. After more than six months the family was still waiting. Finally, the church found a sponsor family, but a couple months before they were going to leave, their father, Koku, died of cancer. The family still decided to go through with the move.

On February 24th, 2000, the family moved to Syracuse. It was a major culture shock once they got here. “I stepped out of the airplane and there was snow everywhere, and I was just like ‘oh my god,’” Gale said chuckling.

The boys continued to play soccer after arriving in the U.S. Even while adjusting to a new culture and trying to learn English, the boys would still play soccer with their two older brothers, Messan and Anani, at Barry Park on the East Side of Syracuse. They would walk about five miles to get there from their home on the North Side. Coach Ken Schoening practiced with his East Side Soccer recreation team at Barry Park once a week beginning in April. One day he noticed Mawuena and Gale watching his team practice.

“They sort of just stood off to the side as we were practicing. I walked over to them and said ‘Hey guys, you interested in joining us?’” Schoening said. They didn’t speak English well at the time, but when Schoening found out they were from Togo, he spoke to them in French. “Their faces lit up,” he said, “We conversed in French, I asked them a few questions, and I said ‘Okay yeah you can join us, practice with us.’”

Schoening had the boys play goalie in the practice because they didn’t have cleats or shin guards. After the practice, Schoening asked if they were interested in playing for his team. He got their phone numbers and called the league to see if he could get them on his team mid-season. The league coordinator allowed Schoening to put Gale and Mawuena on his team. He bought them each a pair of cleats and started picking them up for games and practices.

Mawuena Agbossoumonde, attacking midfielder for Syracuse University

Schoening’s son Charles was on that team, and remembers what it was like playing with them. “The funny thing was, they played so well in goal that practice that we put them in goal during the game, and they were kind of disappointed,” Charles said, “But they were like the greatest goalies we had ever seen. We had no idea they played field.” Gale and Mawuena were eventually let out of the goal.

Schoening’s recreation team was just the first stop for Gale and Mawuena. Soon after joining East Side Soccer, other families stepped up and helped pay for the boys to play on other teams as well, including the Syracuse Blitz with Charles.

One of the families that helped Gale and Mawuena, was the Ashemburg family, of Manlius. Mawuena became friends with Ben Ashemburg, a teammate around his age. Ben’s mother, Alicia, helped by giving the boys rides to practice and even paid some of their team fees. Alicia said it was an easy decision to help them. “We just couldn’t imagine how they had survived what they had survived,” she said, “They didn’t talk a lot about their past, but they were just kids that never really complained, and never fought. They were just great kids.”

Mawuena was a dual sport athlete at CBA

The boys played together for a few seasons. “Mawuena is one year older than me, and I’m one year older than Gale,” Charles said, “At first, our club team had us all playing one age group older, so there was never any problem if Mawuena played with us.” Eventually the three of them were split up because of their age difference, but they still remained close friends.

Mawuena then joined the Varsity Soccer team at Christian Brothers Academy as an 8th grader. Being such a young player, he was forced to perfect his skills. “Skill wise, I was one of the better players, but at the time I was small,” he said, “I used to get hurt all the time because the guys were like bigger, faster, stronger you know. So that kind of forced me to improve my skills.”

It wasn’t long after that Gale joined him at CBA to form a dynamic duo on the field. Gale’s freshmen year, the team went all the way to the state semi-final, but injuries took away their chance at a title. “We made the state semi-final. We lost because L.J. Papaleo (now a Forward on Syracuse University Soccer) hurt his knee and Gale needed a cortisone shot for his ankle. So they both weren’t healthy. If they were 100 percent we would have won states,” said Mawuena.

After that year, the two boys began to take different paths. Mawuena stayed at CBA, but a national scout noticed Gale during one of his games. “In one of the tournaments he (Gale) scored on a free kick from half field. And at that game there was a national scout and he was just like, ‘We have to give this guy a chance,’” Mawuena said. Gale joined IMG Academy, a training facility for academic and athletic development, in Bradenton, Florida. Mawuena says he had a hand in getting his brother there. “That’s how he got all the goals,” he said laughing, “Because of me.”

Gale, pictured top left, with the U-17 National Team

Gale went down to IMG to play with the best. He remembers the game that changed his life. In 2007, his team played the U-20 National Team that was stacked with the World Cup stars of 2010. He had a disastrous first half in which his coach called him “the other team’s best player.” “He killed my confidence,” Gale said. The coach sent Gale back to his class after the first half. “I just wanted to come home. I just didn’t even want to be there you know,” he said. However, soon after that game, the U-20 coach contacted Gale. “He actually thought I played well in that game,” he said. Gale had to get his citizenship in order, but the coach invited him to Argentina to play with his team, and Gale, then 17, has played in almost every single U-20 National game ever since.

Mawuena finished his career at CBA as a kicker for the football team in his senior year. His five years of eligibility for Varsity soccer had run out, because he played his 7th grade year at Fowler High School before transferring. “My football coaches thought I was good enough to play in the NFL,” Mawuena said, “They were like ‘You should play in college,’ and I was like ‘Naaaah’. It’s so boring, you know, just waiting on the sidelines the whole game.” He stuck with soccer and decided on Syracuse University. This season, his sophomore year, he played in 16 of the team’s 17 games.

Meanwhile, Gale continued to play with the U-20 National team. It was just over a month ago, that he received the invitation to play with the U.S. Senior National team in South Africa for the Nelson Mandela Challenge. He gladly accepted the invitation, but went without the expectation of playing in the game. He had recently re-aggravated a knee injury, but the coaches wanted him to meet and train with the team. But Gale proved tougher than they thought.

On November 17 in Cape Town, South Africa, Gale put on his nation’s colors and made his debut for the United States. He entered the game with just under five minutes to go as his team held a one goal lead. Meanwhile, over 8,000 miles away, his brother, his mother, the Schoenings, the Ashemburgs, and others who had pushed and helped him along the way watched proudly on T.V. “It was a proud moment,” Ken Schoening said, “Here’s a kid that I met one day at Barry Park, standing on the side watching some kids playing and looking like, ‘man, I wish I could play,’ and now look where he is.” Mawuena skipped a team practice, he said, “I couldn’t miss the game for anything.”

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