WAYNE, Pa. – Danny Mwanga was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but it was in Oregon where he was reborn.
There, more than 8,000 miles away from the strife and chaos that led to the death of his father and caused him to be separated from his mother, Mwanga reunited with his family before launching a stateside soccer career that would eventually turn him into the top overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
Now, for the first time as professional, the Philadelphia Union striker will return to the place where his new life began as the Union and Timbers clash Friday night at JELD-WEN Field in Portland (7:30pm PT - Fox Soccer, 95.5 The Game, La Pantera 940 (ESP), MLS MatchDay Free Online).
“There aren’t going to be nerves because I’m used to playing in front of a lot of people already,” the soft-spoken Mwanga told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s just going to be more excitement playing in front of my family and friends for the first time in my hometown.”
Mwanga, who starred at Portland’s Jefferson High and Oregon State University, said he expects plenty of people to be cheering him on, including three of his sisters, his brother-in-law, his niece, some of his old coaches and many of his old friends and teammates from high school and college soccer.
His mother Leontine – who fled the Congo in 1998 at the beginning of the Second Congo War, eight years before arranging for Danny and the rest of her children to join her in Portland – won’t be at JELD-WEN Field as she now lives in Dallas with one of Danny’s sisters.
But Monty Hawkins will be there. Hawkins, who coached Mwanga at the Westside Metros Soccer Club, was more than just a coach to the Congolese refugee. From teaching him how to drive to helping him find out where to go to school, Hawkins filled a very large void in the teenager’s life.
“He helped me a lot and is a big part of my family,” Mwanga said.
Not only is the Union striker elated to see family and friends, he’s also ready to feel the new excitement of Portland having an MLS team. When he first arrived there, Mwanga actually tried out for the Timbers, then a second-division USL club, before being encouraged to go to college.
“I was there before they had a team in MLS but I could see how people were excited for the USL,” Mwanga said. “Now they have a team and I can tell people are really excited. Even watching on TV, I can feel how the fans are very passionate supporting their team. I think it will be a great game.”
Of course, the best part of the game for Mwanga would be if Philly can get the win. Scoring his first goal of the year in his hometown would be special, too.
After being a Rookie of the Year finalist last season with seven goals, Mwanga has shuffled in and out of the starting lineup this year and admits that he hasn’t yet fully gelled with new acquisition Carlos Ruiz up top.
“It’s just a matter of time until we get that chemistry together,” Mwanga said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s still early in the season. Me personally, I don’t worry about it.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.