Sanna Nyassi is a long way from home. Born and raised in the small town of Bwiam in Gambia’s Western River region, the player’s road to America’s Pacific north-west, Major League Soccer and the adoration reserved for a Cup final hero was an arduous one. “It was the biggest moment of my career,” beamed the attacking midfielder in an interview with FIFA.com after his two goals against Columbus Crew earlier this month sealed a second straight US Open Cup title for the Seattle Sounders. “Who wouldn’t be proud of scoring two goals in a final,” added the 21-year-old African standout, just finding his feet after a wobbly start in MLS.
Nyassi’s first taste of football away from the mother continent came in 2007 when Gambia overhauled their youth system and reached the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada. Little was known of the Baby Scorpions when they arrived in the Great White North in 2007, but the watching world would come to remember the upstarts. Their shock run to the Round of 16 unearthed a golden generation for a small country that had never reached a CAF Africa Cup of Nations or a FIFA World Cup finals.
But while Sanna’s identical twin brother Sainney and U-20 team-mate Abdoulie Mansally were immediately snapped up by New England Revolution boss and former Liverpool icon Steve Nicol, the 17-year-old Sanna’s trials on the outskirts of Boston were less joyful. “I wasn’t discouraged that things didn’t work out immediately,” he said, going quiet at the thought of returning home to Gambia after his first foray into the world of professional football. “When one door shuts another one opens.”
Brother Sainey, older by moments, immediately took up his sibling’s cause, hounding his agent about the young talent being wasted thousands of miles east over the Atlantic. The next year Sanna was back, this time swapping the East Coast for the West and a trial with the Seattle Sounders, a club in existence since 1974 but just getting set to join MLS in 2009. He impressed this time, and was signed to a professional contract.
“I just kept working hard and always believed in myself,” he added, admitting the transition to the rainy climes of Washington State from sunny Gambia was not easy: “the food, the culture, the weather was all so different.” In times of hardship and homesickness he picked up his mobile phone and leaned on his brother, a devoted advocate and ally all those miles away in Massachusetts. “We’ve always been competitive, but that’s born out of trying to make each other better,” Sanna admitted of his long-time team-mate with Gambia Ports Authority. “He always gives me advice, like ‘keep your head up’, ‘make your passes a little quicker,’ ‘keep believing in yourself'.”
Big plans for club and country
Sanna says that playing against his twin is a complicated matter and hopes in the future that they can pull on the same jersey like they did as children. Now, though, Sanna’s focus is singular and simple: success for the Sounders and keeping up the form that has seen him score five goals in his last four games. Having helped seal a place for the club in the MLS play-offs for a second straight year, he is hoping to keep up the success they found in the Open Cup (the USA’s 97 year-old version of the FA Cup) and make a deep run toward MLS Cup, the one-off title decider.
“We have the kind of team that can do big things. We have all the things you need: talent, experience and depth. This is a dangerous combination,” said Nyassi, whose coach Sigi Schmid says “hounds defenders all the time and makes them cough up the ball.” When speaking of experience, young Sanna is eager to focus on the team’s elder statesmen, former USA No1 Kasey Keller and Congolese-born Swiss international Blaise Nkufo, as crucial to the team’s fortunes and his own personal development. “It’s great to be around guys like that, who have seen it all and done it all. They’ve both taken me under their wing and try to guide me along the right path.”
Only just out of his teenage years, Nyassi has already been called into action for Gambia’s full national team, currently hunting a place in their first-ever Cup of Nations and hungrily eyeing the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil in four years’ time as this golden generation reaches maturity. Playing again with his brother, and a number of those athletic heroes from Canada 2007, is a relief and an honour for young Sanna. “I think we can do it,” he concluded with the spirit and pride of a young man finding his way in the world. “I think Gambia have what it takes to be great.”