Danny Mwanga portrait
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Coming Up Roses: Forward Danny Mwanga returns to Portland

His story is one that is well known throughout the Rose City soccer scene and it’s time to pen another chapter about Danny Mwanga — his homecoming.

Mwanga is having a hard time hiding his 1,000-watt smile and it’s tough to blame him. He’s just returned home to Portland after being traded from the Philadelphia Union on June 6 in exchange for Colombian forward Jorge Perlaza and as far as first looks go, he’s loving being back.

“For me it feels like a new beginning,” Mwanga said. “I remember being here in high school watching the Timbers play and now I actually have a chance to play for the Timbers. It’s almost like a fresh start and I’m very excited about it.”

The young striker’s story was well documented by local media outlets during his rise as a prep star at Jefferson High School and his emergence on the national radar at Oregon State University.

Settling in Portland just before his 15th birthday from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mwanga blossomed in the Rose City, eventually moving down to Corvallis and winning the Pacific-10 Conference Player of the Year award as a sophomore in 2009 before becoming the No. 1 overall pick by the Union in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.

“When the news broke (that Mwanga was returning to Portland), my heart just filled with warmth,” Oregon State head coach Steve Simmons said. “He’s such a good kid, he’s a good player and he loves this area. This is home for him away from Africa and all of his support cast is here. At the end of the day, he’s got a job to do and there’s a lot of young talent on that team. I’m excited to see him get going.”

For all of his popularity with Portland’s ardent soccer fans, Mwanga couldn’t hide his surprise at the sizable media contingent awaiting his first words following his initial training session as a member of the Portland Timbers two days after the trade.

Under gray skies at the adidas Timbers Training Center, he walked up to the pack of media jostling for position, smiled and quietly mouthed the word, “wow.”

“I don’t remember the last time I got media attention like that,” the soft-spoken Mwanga said. “I think it gives you the motivation to work really hard and bring something nice to the team.”

Despite notching 12 goals and eight assists in 42 appearances in his first two seasons in Philadelphia, Mwanga struggled to fit into former head coach Peter Nowak’s system, often playing out of position and seeing inconsistent playing time through the early stages of this season.

“I’m not a target striker, I’m the guy who plays underneath the striker and tries to run at the back line,” Mwanga said. “This season I felt like I was more used as a target striker, which is not my forte, and it’s something I was still trying to learn.

“At this point in my career, it’s about being consistent,” Mwanga continued. “I’ve had a couple games where I’ve come in and played strong, and some games that were not my best. It’s important for me to be consistent in every game.”

Thoughtful and reserved in his thoughts, Mwanga doesn’t sound like someone who spoke absolutely no English when he first arrived in Portland. He also displays a maturity and composed presence well beyond his age — undoubtedly partially a result of his difficult childhood, a topic the striker isn’t quick to talk about.

Fifteen years ago, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was embroiled in a conflict between rebels and the country’s dictator. Mwanga’s father was killed during the conflict and his mother was forced to flee, leaving Mwanga and his sisters behind to live with their grandmother.

Eventually, Mwanga reunited with his family in Portland and still has three sisters living in the area. He also has many college friends as well as Westside Timbers club coach Monty Hawkins — a very close friend that Mwanga refers to as “like family” — ready to welcome him back with open arms. Not to mention a few ticket requests.

“Some of them already have tickets, which is a help for me,” Mwanga said with a laugh.

Mwanga already has history with the Timbers, aside from playing against his new club three times during his career. His affiliation with the team dates back to his earlier years in Portland.

“When I first got here I was 15 and I trained with the team for a few days,” Mwanga remembered. “I was still debating whether to try to go straight to pro or go to college. After that training I got some advice from people that I should go to school first and then after that try to move on.”

Now, the journey has come full circle as Mwanga settles back into life in the Northwest.

“Things are way different now (with the Timbers), It’s funny how things work out,” Mwanga said. “When I was here going to Jefferson High School, one of my goals was to play for the Timbers some day and now everything has come together for me.”

GOAL: Mwanga finishes off counter

Timbers general manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson was familiar with Mwanga from his play against Portland—as well as his time as a youth in the Rose City. He’s pleased to have the young player in camp to complement target striker Kris Boyd.

The move also provides Portland with some exciting, young potential as the club now has two top picks on its roster — 2010 No. 1 overall pick (Mwanga) and 2011 No. 2 overall pick (Darlington Nagbe).

The move came at the right time for Mwanga and the Timbers, as the team was in the midst of an extended break from regular-season action, allowing Mwanga additional time to meet his new teammates as well as settle back into his hometown.

As for the Union, who parted ways with Nowak on June 13, Mwanga harbored no bad feelings toward his former club.

“We all know it’s the business part of it; players come and go,” Mwanga said. “I was there for two-and-a-half years, I thank them for drafting me and giving me an opportunity to start my career. But I’m here now with my new team and I’m very excited about it.”

Some of that excitement was on display June 3 as Mwanga scored his first goal in a Timbers uniform directly in front of the Timbers Army. After striking home a pinpoint cross from midfielder Franck Songo'o, Mwanga sprinted to the crowd to do a celebratory dance.

“It’s one of the best feelings ever. Seeing all those fans, getting up and down, and chanting - it feels great," he said. "Hopefully I’m going to build from that, and score more goals for the rest of the season.”

And so does the entire Rose City.

Be sure to pick up the latest edition of Green & White Magazine at the next home match at JELD-WEN Field on July 14, 2012 when the Portland Timbers host the LA Galaxy.