Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone — a poor city in a poor country — UCSB standout forward Rodney Michael and stellar midfielder Sahid Conteh didn’t have much of anything.
When it came to soccer, they had even less.
“Sierra Leone is a very, very poor country,” Michael said. “A lot of kids there don’t have the resources to buy soccer balls or to buy soccer cleats. Most of the time, if you drive around you see kids playing soccer with a bottle or something, in their bare feet.
“It was that way with me growing up. If it wasn’t a bottle we were kicking in place of a soccer ball, it might have been a rolled up sock.”
Fortunately for two of the Gauchos’ biggest stars, who will lead the team into tonight’s Big West Conference showdown at No. 14 Cal State Fullerton, their skill with a bottle, sock or whatever they could roll around at a young age, enabled them to trade poverty for penalty kicks.
It’s not that way, however, for a lot of kids in the West African nation
“It’s very different compared to here, because here you see all these kids, like 5-, 6-year-olds joining a team,” Michael said. “In Sierra Leone, we really don’t start joining teams until 11 or 12, if we’re lucky.
“In terms of kicking something you see, sometimes we’re at school, and it’s not sports time, so they didn’t give us balls to play with. So what we’d do is find plastic bottles and kick them, or make balls out of socks and kick them around. Whatever it took, we did it.”
Michael left home at a very young age to try out for an academy team a couple of hours away from his family. He ended up making the club team, which changed his life. Fast forward nine years, the affable striker is in his senior season with the Gauchos, and he’s warming up at the offensive end of the field.
Michael led UCSB — which is currently ranked No. 19 — in goals last season with seven. After a slow start this season, he’s getting hot. He scored his third goal in four matches in Wednesday night’s 2-0 home win over Sacramento State.
When Michael left home as a youngster, he saw his passion in a whole new light.
“I left my family when I was 11 to go to this soccer academy,” he recalled. “There, we had balls, cleats and everything. We had a perfect grass field. It was the best field in the country. The academy was about two hours away from where I grew up in Freetown. Since I was 11, I’ve been playing on good quality fields, with quality balls and everything.”
“If I had not made that move, I would not be the player I am today.”
On the rare occasions when Michael and Conteh get to travel home for a break from soccer and school, they are constantly reminded of what they came from.
Michael, who is one of the best players in college soccer with the ball at his feet, admitted that nowadays there’s no way he could do what he did years ago with a bottle or a sock at his feet.
“Playing in Sierra Leone, you’re probably playing on gravel,” he said. “Even if you have a soccer ball, the ball is always bouncing. If you go to Sierra Leone and you see kids playing, you’d be amazed at how good their touch is.
“When I go back and try to play on gravel fields, I can’t play, because the ball is bouncing everywhere. I can’t do what I usually do because I’ve been playing on beautiful grass fields since I was 11. You look at kids today playing on those gravel fields, and they control the ball so well. It’s just amazing to see.”
UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg has a great deal of respect for his two Freetown talents, and what they’ve endured in their journey to Santa Barbara.
“I think it’s a big part of what makes them unique to a team,” Vom Steeg said. “I think that we have 30 stories of different players with different situations, and when you bring them all together, everyone has a different story.
“Their story happens to obviously be a little more unique because of the challenges they’ve had to overcome to get here. You’re not going to overcome any of those challenges unless you’re really passionate about playing. The characteristic that kind of unifies this whole group, no matter where they come from, is their passion about playing. In the case of Rodney and Sahid, they just happen to appreciate it even more because they didn’t have some of those opportunities when they were younger. They had to work really hard to get to a field, or really hard to get into a game.”
They’ll have no problem getting into tonight’s game. They are two of Vom Steeg’s most reliable starters.
UCSB and Fullerton kickoff at 7 p.m. at Cal State Fullerton. The match can bee seen through the UCSB men’s soccer schedule page at ucsbgauchos.com.