In the 80th minute of Minnesota United’s most recent match against Dallas, Abu Danladi experienced a moment fairly familiar from his rookie season.
On a one-on-one offering a point-blank opportunity, the forward took a shot that ricocheted off the post. Had that blunder happened even a month earlier, it might have been the lasting impression of Danladi from that game.
Instead, the striker found himself on another breakaway eight minutes later. And this time, he didn’t fail.
“I’m not going to say it didn’t get to me. It did get to me. But also, it was pretty close,” Danladi said. “One thing that made me go for the next one is, I couldn’t have hit it any better. … I knew the game was opened up, and I would get another chance.”
That ability to shake off missed opportunities is one lesson Danladi has learned in his first Major League Soccer season, which continues Saturday night at Houston. The No. 1 draft pick from UCLA struggled early in the season with injuries. But a fine-tuning of his fitness program has sparked a late-season surge that has the Ghana native making a push for Rookie of the Year accolades.
Danladi has played 22 matches with 12 starts this season, including appearing in the past nine. He has seven goals and two assists and is on a two-match scoring streak after coming off the bench.
United has won every match in which the rookie has scored.
Coach Adrian Heath said he always knew Danladi had the potential, but his fitness held him back for most of the season.
“He certainly had the ability, but as I said to him before, ability’s one thing. But you have to be on the pitch to show everybody what you can do,” Heath said. “What he has to do now is keep building on that, remember that he’s had this run of games now because he’s been fit and healthy, and we have to maintain that. And if he does, then he’s got a big future ahead of him. We know that because the kid can score goals.”
Winger Ethan Finlay said Danladi is more technical than the 21-year-old is credited for, but he’s been most impressed with how Danladi, at only 5-10 and 170 pounds, embraces the physical aspect of the game.
“For me, he’s got a lot of raw ability that he’s starting to kind of harness and trying to figure out exactly when and how to use it,” Finlay said. “You wouldn’t look around the locker room and say, ‘OK, that guy’s a rookie.’ … He fits right in. Still steps in and does his rookie duties when needed.”
Those “rookie duties” include carrying gear or water during practices or road trips. Unfortunately for Danladi, most of those responsibilities fall to him, as United’s other draft pick, Thomas de Villardi, has been injured most of the season. Danladi said his teammates treat him like a rookie “all the time,” but he accepts it.
“I mean, I was in college, and the freshmen came in, and they were treated like rookies, too, so it’s OK. I know,” Danladi said. “They pick on me, but it’s just all in good fun.
“On the field, they don’t treat me like a rookie. We play as a team, which is the most important part.”
A look back at how Danladi celebrated that redemption goal last weekend proves that: The whole bench ran up the sideline to hug and congratulate him.
“It’s been a good experience so far. I’ve learned a lot,” Danladi said of his rookie year. “Right now if the season was over, I would be excited for how I’ve played.
“And I know I could always do better.”