Mar 17, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Columbus Crew defender Lalas Abubakar (17) chases a loose ball against the Philadelphia Union during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Major League Soccer is a diverse league, comprised of players from more than 70 countries. Each player takes a unique pathway to MLS, but none may be as uncommon as Columbus Crew SC centerback Lalas Abubakar.
A native of Ghana, Abubakar was selected fifth overall in the 2017 SuperDraft after playing at the University of Dayton. How did a player with offers in Europe and appearances for the Ghana U-20 team end up at a college in the sixth biggest city in Ohio?
“I’ve done a lot of overseas recruiting,” Dayton head coach Dennis Currier said. “Probably around 2007, I headed over to Ghana to watch a few players. We got one of them named Isaac Kissi. He did really well, got drafted [2010, third round Chivas USA] and played for the Rochester Rhinos. That really led to a pipeline. I headed over to watch Lalas play, and it was obvious that he was very good.”
At the time, Abubakar wasn’t interested in playing for Dayton. He was playing well at the University of Ghana and dreamt of one day playing in Europe. Moving from a college with 32,000 undergraduate students in a city of more than two million people to a college with 8,500 undergrads in a city less than a tenth the size of Accra didn’t seem to make much sense.
“Ever year [Dayton] comes to my university to recruit players, to bring one or two guys over…they came in 2012 and picked one of my friends, and when he got [to America] he tried to talk to them and said, ‘Hey, there’s this guy who is really good, so if you have a chance you might want to go look at him,’” Abubakar said. “2013, they came up and saw me and liked what they saw. They offered me a full scholarship, but at that time I had a couple opportunities to go to Europe to play. I wanted to go but they didn’t work out, so I ended up coming to the U.S.”
“When I was sitting in the draft room and heard Don Garber call my name, I was like, ‘Columbus Crew, wow. Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, this is great.’”
After thinking Abubakar wouldn’t be coming, Currier received an email from the young defender out of the blue letting him know that things had changed. Curried wasted no time bringing him on board.
“Leaving Ghana, coming to the U.S., I didn’t know anybody,” Abubakar said, “so I wanted to go to a place where I had one or two familiar faces…you just need to adjust and go with it.
”Dayton is not a really big school but it’s a very good community. They have a very good tradition down there.”
Currier said it took Abubakar, who has a “big personality,” only about three weeks to adjust, despite the cultural shock of moving from Ghana to America.
“College soccer is a huge difference to what they play in Ghana…There’s always an adjustment period,” Currier said.
After that adjustment period, Abubakar took off. “We knew Lalas in his second year would end up being a pro, and felt he was going to be a very good pro. With anyone it’s finding the right team and the right system. His combine was fantastic. His last year [at Dayton] and his last five games is when he peaked and you just knew he was ready,” Currier said, “The first thing he told me when he got here was we would win the A-10 championship, and we did.”
Getting drafted out of a small college is no easy feat, much less to go in the first round. But going to Crew SC was special for Abubakar.
“When I was sitting in the draft room and heard Don Garber call my name, I was like, ‘Columbus Crew, wow. Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, this is great.’ Then once I got here they signed Mohammed Abu, and I thought ‘I’m home. I’m happy.’ I grew up watching these guys in the World Cup, so having the privilege to play with them is awesome,” Abubakar said.
both Afful and Mensah play for Ghana’s national team, the Black Stars.
But Abubakar struggled to get first team minutes in 2017 and spent time in the United Soccer League before breaking through with Columbus at the end of the season. In 2018, he’s taken the reins of a starting spot and doesn’t look to be letting go anytime soon.
“All the credit goes to Lalas. He’s out here all the time working. He wants to learn about the game, and you see his improvement. On top of that, it’s his desire. He’s a hungry player, he’s motivated, and he competes when he’s on the field,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said.
In the first week of the regular season, Abubakar made MLS team of the week for helping get a shutout on the road against reigning champion Toronto FC. The next week against the Montreal Impact, Abubakar drew a penalty off a corner kick, again garnering praise. With a surprising rise in passing accuracy to compliment his physical game and another road shutout against the Philadelphia Union, more eyes are now on Abubakar.
Currier has always been keeping an eye on Abubakar, going so far as to purchase MLS Live just to watch his games. He isn’t surprised by Abubakar’s success.
“When he went in last year against Minnesota I wasn’t shocked they got a shutout,” Currier said. “I think they went 5-2 with him in the lineup. I knew he was going to play well. He’s a competitor, a very strong confidence. He’s not a guy that sulks when he is on the bench. I knew that when he would go in, he was going to perform well. That last game was very important for Lalas to play in the playoffs and get that experience you need. Of course as a coach you want him to play, but I wasn’t surprised. I knew he would find his way on the field.”
It took time for Abubakar to find his way from Ghana to America. But with his current success, it might not take long for him to find his way back alongside Afful and Mensah as usual — this time in a Black Stars uniform.