Wherever Abu Danladi goes, fate seems to intervene.
It happened at age 11, when the Right to Dream Academy in his native Ghana selected him out of thousands of other boys to live, study and train in soccer at the school.
It happened at 15, when a quick change sent him nearly 7,500 miles from his home country to Southern California for a chance to pursue his soccer goals in the U.S.
At 21, it happened when Minnesota United FC made him the No. 1 overall pick in Friday’s MLS SuperDraft.
He’s either incredibly lucky, or that whole destiny thing might actually be real.
As a kid in Takoradi, Ghana, Danladi would have never imagined he would end up as a professional soccer player in the U.S., let alone Minnesota.
“It’s so hard. There are so many soccer players around the world. This is just like a dream come true for me,” Danladi said. “So many helpers, so many different people got me here. And it’s been a great journey, and I would never change it for anything.”
Those helpers Danladi mentioned started working on his behalf long before they even knew who he was. Helena Avery was a teacher at Dunn School, a private boarding school in Los Olivos, Calif., when she learned the school would have to stop taking Right to Dream Academy students after the financial crisis in 2008. She offered her home up as host family while another couple, David and Kimberly Barenborg, agreed to sponsor the student.
But even after all that preparation, the academy originally planned to send a different student named Daniel, only making the call two weeks before the move to send Danladi instead.
“You kind of had this alternate reality thing happen where there was a switch that happened and we ended up getting a young man by the name of Abu Danladi,” said Cris Avery, Danladi’s host father. “When my wife says, ‘Hey, we’re having a Daniel,’ that kind of sounds like an American name and you get your mind around that. And the next thing you know, you’re finding a young man by the name of Abu, and you’re like, ‘What is that?’ ”
Danladi also encountered his share of culture shock. It took awhile to learn that even though a nickel is larger than a dime, it isn’t worth more. And when he first came to California, he would eat 10-15 Carl’s Jr. chicken sandwiches a week because it was one of the only foods he liked.
On the soccer pitch, however, he hardly needed any adjusting. In fact, after his first club team game, an opponent in the handshake line asked for Danladi’s autograph.
“That doesn’t happen with 15-year-old kids,” Cris Avery said. “He’s had some kind of magic moments where other people realized there’s something different about him.”
Danladi had a similar encounter as a high school junior when his team played at a faraway town. Three kids came from the stands after the game, having never heard of him before and knowing nothing about him, to ask for an autograph.
“They just saw this thing that was so unique and so special,” Avery said.
Those signatures probably went up in value when Danladi signed with UCLA, and again after his MLS selection. Danladi’s family in Ghana, though, didn’t actually see him drafted. Theycouldn’t attend the event in person. Then their power to watch the live stream didn’t kick in until the second pick. So Danladi’s mom watched the entire first round before she knew Abu had gone No. 1.
Danladi said he has only been back to see his family once since he has been in the U.S. But he uses social media and Wi-Fi/video calling to stay in touch as much as possible.
But that distance hasn’t dimmed the affable Danladi’s ability to light up a room, UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said.
“He has a million-dollar smile,” Salcedo said. “He’s very, very caring with kids, and he really is appreciative and grateful for his opportunity to be here in the United States. … He’ll be someone that will immerse himself in the community there in Minnesota.”
Avery agreed that Danladi shares a common story with many Minnesotans who emigrated from Africa, and knows Danladi, like fellow immigrants, will continue to work hard to prove he’s worth all the fortune he’s received.
“They’re not really bringing anything with them,” Avery said, “other than hope and dreams and opportunity.”