Danny Mwanga
(Getty Images)

Rose City welcomes old friend

PORTLAND, Ore - When the Portland Timbers take the pitch tonight at JELD-WEN Field, the Rose City will not just be welcoming the next potential victim in the Philadelphia Union (7:30pm PT - Fox Soccer, 95.5 The GameLa Pantera 940 (ESP), MLS MatchDay Free Online), they will also be welcoming back an old friend.

Danny Mwanga’s soccer journey didn’t start in the Rose City, but Portland certainly was a significant stop on his path to becoming the #1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft last year. The former Oregon State and Jefferson High School standout will be returning to his American hometown for the first time as a professional to showcase his skill and extraordinary talent to Soccer City USA.

“I’m pretty excited,” Mwanga said, “I’ve been watching the Timbers games on TV and the fans are great, it’s a great atmosphere and it’ll be the first time I get to play here in front of my family and friends so I’m looking forward to it.”

Mwanga isn’t the only one looking forward to Friday night. His former club team, the Westside Metros have reportedly purchased 400 tickets for tonight’s match and will be holding a reception for their former star as well. The Oregon State men’s soccer team will also be in attendance to watch the former Pac-10 Player of the Year in action before the Beavers wrap up their spring pre-season tomorrow against Seattle University.

However, those that know him best know that he won’t let the fanfare of his homecoming be a distraction.

“He’s going to take the professional approach and help Philadelphia get 3 points.” Oregon State Head Coach Steve Simmons said. “Philadelphia has been doing quite well and Portland has been a fortress [for opposing teams].”

Given the record of opposing teams at JELD-WEN Field, traveling to the Rose City has been a nightmare for opponents. For Mwanga, it’s more of a dream come true.

“For a lot of guys it’s been an intimidating place to play.” Mwanga’s Westside Metros club coach and mentor Monty Hawkins said. “For him he’ll get a lift out of knowing this is where he’s from and he’s proud to be a part of this.”

The fact that Mwanga has made it this far is an incredible feat. At the young age of 19 the young striker has seen more than his share of adversity. After a childhood overwhelmed by tragedy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mwanga overcame nearly impossible odds to become one of the best young soccer players in the country and finish as a finalist for the rookie of the year award after the 2010 season for the expansion Union.

Friday night will be the next chapter of his incredible journey and the next milestone on Mwanga’s long list of unbelievable achievements.

“It will be great, it’s my first homecoming ever.” Mwanga said. “I went to high school here, I went to college here. It’s going to be great I just have to make sure I perform well because I’m going to remember this for the rest of career.

Whether or not Mwanga performs well is not a question in the minds of his friends and family. Most will be busy taking in the most recent chapter of one of the most inspiring stories in American soccer.

“It’s a great experience for him, it’s another milestone,” Hawkins said. “In the past year and a half, it’s probably his most heartfelt one where he gets the chance to come back and play in front of his friends and family.”

Given the number of friends and family members who will be in the crowd a normal 19-year-old would understandably feel an added amount of pressure. However most 19-year-olds aren’t Danny Mwanga.

“It’s not pressure it’s more of an excitement.” Mwanga said. “It gives me more motivation knowing that a lot of people are coming to watch me, it gives me more motivation to come out here and do well and make people happy.”

Making other people happy has always been a skill of Mwanga’s both on and off the pitch. His uncanny ability to put others before himself is another reason why tonight will be so special for so many people.

“He’s really humble, he really appreciates everybody, and he’s a really genuine and nice person.” Westside Metros President and Timbers Ring of Honor inductee John Bain said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the surface of how good he’s going to be.”

The game itself tonight won’t be the biggest game in Mwanga’s career, but given everything that led to this point it will be hard for another game to be as special.

“For anybody there’s going to be ups and downs,” Hawkins said, “it’s just riding those ups and downs that are going to carry him forward.”

Very few people know that better than Danny Mwanga.