Journey to Vancouver long story - The Province
By Marc Weber
It's a quirk of Nelson Akwari's resume that jumps out right away.
How does a guy who captained the American U-17 and U-20 teams, who played five seasons in Major League Soccer and helped the Columbus Crew to a regular-season title, end up with the Charlotte Eagles of USL-2, North America's third soccer tier?
"It's a long story," Akwari said Tuesday, after the Vancouver Whitecaps signed the six-foot central defender to a one-year deal with a club option.
Here's the short version: Akwari, 27, is MLS's collective bargaining stalemate personified.
When the Texan wanted out of Real Salt Lake after a dismal 2006 campaign, the club didn't like the offers for his rights, which MLS teams hold for four seasons. So he left. For Charlotte.
The Eagles are owned and operated by Missionary Athletes International and use soccer as a means of engaging the community.
"It was a tough decision," said Akwari, a devout Christian.
"Tough, ego-wise. But I had a great year in Charlotte. My wife [Mandy] and I were going into our first year of marriage and we wanted to be in a comfortable place to grow our marriage. Charlotte offered that — the combination of sport and faith."
Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson needs a little faith in his central defence this season. Last year was a circus with 10 different players taking a turn in the crucial role. And the bigger picture, of course, is this club needs a host of players capable of competing for an MLS job come 2011, when the Whitecaps jump to the top tier.
Akwari brings plenty of experience. He played 78 MLS matches and spent the past two seasons with the Charleston Battery, a stingy USL-1 club since demoted. He's the third USL-1 all-star Thordarson has added this off-season, following midfielders Ricardo Sanchez and Jonny Steele.
"He's strong, he's physical and he's a leader," said Caps' goalkeeper Jay Nolly, who's known Akwari since they were in U.S. national team programs together at 15.
"He adds a little bite at the back and I think that's something we need right now. But he's also one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet."
Nolly was also Akwari's roommate for a season with Real Salt Lake and put in a good word to Caps' brass, as did Battery assistant coach at the time Mark Watson, a former Whitecap.
Akwari is also close with Chris Williams, his ex-Battery teammate whom the Whitecaps signed in November to play right back. And his cellphone is full of well-known U.S. players.
Akwari was part of the inaugural IMG Soccer Academy, a U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., that in 1999 featured current national team players Landon Donovan (on loan to Everton), Oguchi Onyewu (A. C. Milan) and DaMarucs Beasley (Rangers).
It's a tight group, Akwari said, having just spoken to Beasley. His peer group has achieved a lot. He thinks his best soccer is yet to come.
"The past three years, I've played a lot of games, I've grown a lot," said Akwari, the son of Nigerian immigrants who's expecting his first child, a boy, any day. "I have a lot of years ahead of me. I set my goals really high and plan to work hard to achieve them."