When Gerardo Milano arrived in Boston to begin his college career at Northeastern, he didn’t know a word of English.
Inspired by his older brother, Riccardo, who was playing soccer for Division I St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York, Milano made the move to Boston from his native Caracas, Venezuela. He enrolled in a nine-month English program to learn the language in order to become a full-time student at Northeastern, where he joined the men’s soccer team as a walk on.
Moustapha Samb was chasing the same dream in Senegal. And in Norway, after taking a year off from school and focusing on soccer, Martin Nygaard was itching to do something different from his peers who were going the traditional college route. For each of them, the next step was joining the Huskies.
This season, the Huskies boast a roster with eight international players – Milano, Samb, Nygaard, Noah Abrams (London, England), Jacob Marin-Thomson (Madrid, Spain), Dante Morrissette, Ryan Massoud and Omar Da Naia (Ontario, Canada), down from 14 in 2015 and 13 in 2016. According to head coach Chris Gbandi, these numbers are not a coincidence.
“Because the game is so global, I think ultimately you’re going to get players from all over the world,” Gbandi said. “We try to get the best players we possibly can, and if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to look outside the U.S. because the game is played all around the world.”
Gbandi said there can be obstacles with such a geographically-varied group, particularly when it comes to blending his team’s different playing styles. But for the international players, Gbandi and the coaching staff’s slight stressor serves as their welcome home party of sorts.
“It makes everything easier when you look around and you see that there are so many other international kids,” Samb said. “In your head you say, ‘Oh, I’m not by myself.’ It could’ve been a lot harder. Seeing other guys from Norway, Venezuela and just knowing that you’re in this together makes it easier and more comfortable.”
“It gives you the opportunity to share your past experiences and your culture with them at the same time,” Milano said. “That is intrinsic motivation to work towards, representing your culture with people from different countries worldwide.”
For the trio, a spot on the men’s soccer team while getting a Northeastern education was the logical next move toward their visions of playing professionally, maybe one day competing for their native countries. But the seniors say donning a Huskies uniform has already given them the opportunity to represent their homes in a way they know is needed.
For Samb, it’s simple – he’s putting his country on the map. He said his teammates did not know where Senegal was when he first joined the team, but now they know “so much more.”
“Looking back now, five years ago, if somebody told me that I would actually come to the U.S. and live here for four years, I would’ve told them that they were crazy,” Samb said. “I never thought that could happen one day. It’s kind of crazy.”
Nygaard is grateful to be representing a path to success that is possible outside of his home country.
“There’s not that many people that have the same opportunity as me,” Nygaard said. “Norway is a pretty rich country, and it’s easy to take things for granted. The way I’m doing [college] is a bit different from everyone, it’s an education I would say is better than most people at home. It means a lot.”
Milano had his brother as a role model as he began to envision his path to college soccer in a new country. Now, he wants to set an example for children in Venezuela, showing them what is possible as he represents his home country on the turf at Parsons Field.
“I know a lot of kids want to do the same thing,” Milano said. “Being the role model and being an example for these kids motivates me to do better and better […] in academics as well.”
Gbandi knows what it feels like for his players to dream of representing their home country – it’s a dream he accomplished after completing a journey similar to the one so many of his players are on.
Born in Liberia, he fled the country with his family in the midst of its civil war and moved to Texas, where he grew up and played in Houston before joining the team at the University of Connecticut. From there, he joined the Liberian national team.
“Anytime you’re representing not only yourself and your family but you’re representing your culture and the country that you’re from, I think you have that extra motivation,” he said. “When these guys are playing, you can tell there’s an extra energy.”
Featured photo by Brian Bae.