Featured Player: Sola Abolaji
The 22-year-old has not yet completed his first season as a professional player, but he has already appeared for two USL-1 clubs during the current campaign. After playing in five league games with the expansion Carolina RailHawks, Abolaji was traded to the Whitecaps for striker Joel Bailey just days before July 30 transfer deadline.
The youngster admits the move to Canada’s Pacific Northwest was unexpected. “I was surprised a little bit because everything in Carolina was going great, as I got along with everybody there,” Abolaji told whitecapsfc.com. “It’s my first year as a pro, so I wasn’t quite used to the business aspect of the game. However, I spoke to the coach and the owners in Carolina, and they said it was something that they had to do. They traded me to a really good team, and they had a lot of positive things to say about Vancouver and the organization. I took it in stride and saw it as another opportunity.”
Born of Nigerian parents, the Denver, Colorado native admits Vancouver is a different environment from the one he experienced with Carolina. “There are quite a few differences, as there are quite a few different personalities in both clubs,” he said. “They’re both building their clubs to win championships, so I’ve been fortunate to be part of both environments. The team here is great and the coaching staff is excellent as well. Vancouver is also a really nice place, I really like it.”
Abolaji has made just one substitute appearance for Bob Lilley’s side since the trade, having come on as a substitute in the August 25 home victory against Charleston Battery. Though disappointed not to have played more since his move, he admits injury has hampered his availability. “I’m just taking it all in stride, as I’ve had a couple of unfortunate injuries with my hamstring, but all that is clearing up now,” he said. “You have to work hard in order to get the time that you want on the field. I have been watching a lot, but until you go out and play with your team, then you don’t feel part of what they are doing and part of the success that they are striving for. It felt good to get out there against Charleston and hear the fans cheering my name, as that felt like home.”
Back in January, Abolaji made a bit of history when he became the first athlete from the University of Buffalo to be drafted first overall in a professional sports draft after being by the RailHawks. Despite the notable accolade, Abolaji says he has not felt any pressure during the season. “I think it gave me more of an incentive to work hard, as I think a lot of people were going to expect a lot out of me,” he admits. “I was happy that a club like Carolina wanted me at the time. I also think that whenever you can put your school’s name on the map, it’s a good feeling as well. There are a lot of great athletes at Buffalo, so I was happy just to be seen and get picked.”
The success Abolaji enjoyed at the University of Buffalo came in his final two years of college eligibility, as the defender curiously started in the junior college ranks before joining the Bulls. He spent his freshman year in Kansas with Barton County Community College before transferring to Northern Oklahoma Junior College. “Out of high school, I was being recruited by a lot of top NCAA Division One schools, but I chose the junior college route,” Abolaji said of his college days. “I went to Barton in Kansas in my first year, but I didn’t really like the situation there, so I decided to leave early. I went to Northern Oklahoma and it all worked out. I have no clue how the University of Buffalo saw me, but I found their school to be a fresh and new environment - something that I wasn’t used to. It was a challenge to help build their men’s soccer program and I wanted to be part of that.”
As he embarks on the final month of his first professional season, Abolaji shares the sentiment of many in the Whitecaps squad in believing that the team can defend the USL-1 title won last season. “From the feeling that I’ve been getting from this team, there’s always been a positive attitude from day one,” he admits. “Everyone knows this is a talented team, and once the team starts playing well, then it will be hard to stop. This next month will be about working hard and getting the results.”