Twenty-one. That’s how many soccer players will represent the United States at the 2017 Under-20 World Cup in South Korea. Among those are blue chip prospects who have been groomed by some of the finest academies in the world. From Liverpool and Tottenham to the chosen ones of U.S. U-17 residency at Bradenton, some of these kids have been prepping for high level soccer since before they were teenagers. One player among those 21 prospects didn’t walk that normal path to youth national team prominence.
Lagos Kunga is not your typical American soccer story. He wasn’t found at an early age by a top scout and given the red carpet to stardom. The soft-spoken 18-year-old from Tucker, GA had to fight and claw for every single inch he gained as a soccer player. His call-up to the World Cup roster took many, even the ones closest to him, by surprise considering he only got one previous call-up. When examining all the factors involved in him getting this far, that shock quickly turns to astonishment.
Born in Angola, Lagos and his family moved to Russia soon after his birth where he lived until he was seven years old. His family then came to the United States under refugee status and landed in Clarkston, GA. This is an area known as a safe haven for refugees who are looking to escape war-torn countries. Reportedly, thousands of such entrants into the U.S. have settled in the area over the years. Eventually, the family moved to Tucker a few years later.
Kunga may have found his new home in the U.S. then, but it was soon after he would find his soccer home. Decatur-Dekalb YMCAA Soccer Club (DDYSC Wolves) is a modest organization now, but at the time of Lagos’ arrival it was a fledgling program just getting off the ground. A U-10 player at the time, Lagos and a group of his recreational league teammates at the time joined DDYSC and nearly doubled the size of the program. That’s where he called home up until joining Atlanta United’s academy late in 2016.
DDYSC’s former Director of Coaching, Jeff Newbury, has been a very important figure in Kunga’s development as a player and as a person. First meeting Lagos nearly 10 years ago, Newbury described him as very shy off-the-field, but a clear talent on it.
"He maybe said two words to me all year,” Newbury told Dirty South Soccer. “I questioned whether or not he spoke English, but he did. He was just really, really quiet and shy. But, you could tell there was something special about him [on the field]. He had a really high soccer IQ, he was really savvy."
Lagos’ star really took off after joining the Wolves. Soon after showing his undeniable talent he began receiving accolades and call-ups from various higher tiered soccer programs. Most notably, he became the first DDYSC player to ever represent Georgia’s ODP (Olympic Development Program) team. He then went on to play for Region III, a team of the Southeast’s best players. That escalated even further to call ups to the U.S. Under-14 national team.
Ricardo Montoya helped recruit Kunga to Georgia ODP and says the reason that Kunga caught his eye was because of his explosiveness and versatility.
“Lagos’ energy can change a game for you,” Montoya told DSS. “If you give him time and space he can burn you. His work rate is high and has a bit of street player mentality in him. He has a change of pace and is confident to take players on, lots of confidence in 1v1 situations. He feels comfortable taking risk. He’s not afraid of anyone.”
“He also provides you with versatility. Lagos is a left-footed player that can play as winger on either side, but mostly left wing or as second striker.”
Much like Lagos did in his one tryout camp for the U.S. U-20’s, he instantly blew away the ODP coaches in his tryout for them.
“So, 15-20 minutes after he stepped on the field, the other coaches were amazed over his skills, personality on the field, pace, decision making and ball control. He was literally controlling that try out game,” said Montoya.
Reaching the national team at any age group is a tremendous honor, but with it also brings extraordinary stresses of bureaucratic paperwork and medical information. Due to Lagos’ status as a refugee at the time, his challenge of getting the proper documentation became quite the ordeal. With his family left at their wit’s end because of the overwhelming amount of legwork to be done, Jeff Newbury and several other members of the Decatur community came together to form a de facto committee they dubbed “Team Kunga” to make sure he got all the necessary paperwork and medical records to be able to compete.
"We had a group of people that really reached out and helped when he needed something,” Newbury said. “Just this tight knit community who were really working to help Lagos."
The first time he was invited to go on a major trip abroad to Portugal was when things began getting tricky. Newbury tells the story of having to fly to the Portuguese embassy in Washington D.C. to get Lagos’ passport sorted, then fly all the way back to Atlanta to personally hand it to him so he could fly out of the country all in the span of a few hours. These are the types of obstacles that he’s had to overcome just to get the chance to prove his talents.
His success on the soccer field began affecting his school work. Having to miss so much time with national team call-ups, Lagos began falling behind with his education. That’s when The Paideia School, a private school that specializes in going the extra mile for its students, came into his life. Noticing his unique situation and talents, they gave Kunga a full scholarship to attend their school and worked continuously with him to overcome the extended absences due to soccer. Newbury credits The Paideia School with helping tremendously in Kunga’s development and allowing for less stress in missing so much school.
"Paideia was fantastic academically,” Newbury said.
“They probably had 15-20 people who worked with him night and day, before school, after school, during lunch. Everything they could to keep him moving forward. It was important to his parents. His parents have always been clear that they want him to be educated. They don't want him to just live in the world of soccer. His parents, the teachers at Paideia, and Team Kunga that surrounded him kept him pretty grounded."
Though he was constantly working his way up in the world of soccer with the national and regional teams, Kunga continued to stay loyal to DDYSC despite outside voices wondering why he wasn’t moving to a more prestigious team. His reasons for staying were simple and admirable. He didn’t want to leave his comfort zone or his friends and wanted to stay loyal to the community who had helped him get this far. Newbury says that offers came in from all over the country to try and get Kunga to join other academies. Several MLS clubs such as LA Galaxy, FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union were among those vying to lure him to their setups. Despite the offers, Kunga remained with the less glamorous DDYSC to finish what he started with his friends.
Eventually the time came for Lagos to leave the nest of his childhood club team. His talents had surpassed his level and Development Academy competition was a must. According to Newbury, the decision came down to joining Georgia United or Concorde Fire, Georgia’s two biggest academies at the time. Then a bit of fate intervened when it was announced that Atlanta United would be joining the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. This was a perfect storm for Kunga who was allowed the opportunity to return to DDYSC for one last year with his teammates and then get one year with Atlanta United to finish off his youth club career.
Since joining the ambitious expansion club’s academy, Lagos has continued his ascent up the ladder. His 10 goals in 21 games for the Atlanta United U-18’s in DA play is good enough for third best on the team. He’s used his newfound platform to showcase himself to the higher levels of youth national teams, receiving several call-ups from USMNT legend and current U.S. U-19 national team head coach Brad Friedel. But it was a call in April that changed everything. U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos was holding one last training camp before naming his final roster for the World Cup. Twenty-five players received the call and Lagos’ was among them. His first call-up and his one and only chance to impress. And impress he did.
In just the single camp he was called to, Lagos blew away Tab Ramos so much that he earned the shock call-up to the U.S. U-20 World Cup team. Ramos had nothing but glowing words for the Atlanta youngster when asked what it was about the one camp performance that was enough to earn him a roster spot.
“Lagos did such a great job in the one camp he attended,” Ramos said in a teleconference following the roster announcement.
“He impressed us so much in that one camp. He can do it all. He gets forward really well with speed. He has a good feel for the game, so he understands the game. He has passion for the game. He loves this. You can tell he can't wait to get on the field every day. And he makes plays. He takes people on down the sideline. He gets ball into the box. He'll come back and defend if he has to. He can do it all.”
No matter where he goes, whether it’s a modest local youth club or the country’s pinnacle for his age group, Lagos Kunga wins over those who get to see him on the field. Born in a country riddled by civil war, he has fought his way through adversity to become one of the United States’ top soccer prospects.
When the U.S. walkout on the field in South Korea on Monday, there might just be a little extra pride erupting from the Decatur area. One of their own will be representing the country on the biggest possible stage for under-20 talent.