VANCOUVER, BC – Growing up in Mitchell’s Plain, a crime-ridden township in the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, Ethen Sampson said soccer helped save his life.
Now, he’s hoping it will do the same for his family.
Sampson, 20, signed a Major League Soccer contract with Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Thursday. It was the South African’s first professional deal – something he’s been working towards for as long as he can remember. For reasons bigger than just soccer.
Ethen Sampson speaks to reporters about his first MLS deal
“One of my main goals was always to help my family live more comfortably,” Sampson told whitecapsfc.com. “I might save my family’s life by just signing this contract.”
Sampson’s family currently lives in what he described as a “middle-class area” in Mitchell’s Plain, which is located in the Western Cape. He said their particular neighbourhood is one of the safer ones, relatively speaking, but Mitchell’s Plain is a township notorious for its crime.
In fact, a report from the South African Police Service had it as the South African precinct with the most reported crimes in 2013.
Among them, there were 91 murders (highest in the last 10 years), 216 attempted murders (highest in the last nine years), 418 sexual crimes, 765 assaults with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, and 1,702 burglaries at residential premises.
Fortunately, Sampson and his family were never victim to any of the crime in the area, though he witnessed a robbery on more than one occasion.
“I grew up there and saw how it was,” Sampson said. “There is some gangsterism and stuff like that, but I kept away from everything. I was focused on soccer and my education. It kept me off the streets.”
“Back in my neighbourhood, there are kids that turn out bad,” he added. “I’m lucky that I’m the one that went away and went down the right route.”
And that route led him to Vancouver.
After a successful four-year career with South African soccer school club ASD Cape Town, with whom he was named captain at the age of 15, Sampson joined Whitecaps FC’s U-23 team on a United Soccer Leagues (USL) Premier Development League (PDL) contract early last year.
Since then, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound right back has done everything in his power to earn a spot on the first team. Whether it’s going in hard on tackles in training, playing a variety of different positions in the PDL and MLS Reserve League, or stepping up for teammates like he did for newcomer Sebastian Fernandez in a preseason match against Seattle Sounders FC last month, Sampson has come to work every single day over the last year with one goal in mind.
And now, as he put it, “the hard work is finally paying off.”
“Last season, I was pushing myself every day for an MLS contract,” he said. “Sometimes, I had doubts about it. But after that, I just thought that I need to start working harder in training and anything can happen.”
Just don’t expect Sampson to stop working now that he’s reached his goal.
“I’m working towards bigger goals now,” he said.
Naturally, the first one is to see some MLS action. Recently-acquired Steven Beitashour will likely slot in as the team’s opening day right back, but he could miss time while away on international duty with Iran.
And that could open the door for Sampson.
“If the coach gives me a chance, I will grab it with both hands,” he said. “I just want to help the team.”
He wants to help his family, too.
His mother, father, and two brothers currently live together in a two-bedroom home in Mitchell’s Plain.
It’s not a bad life, Sampson said, but he wants to give them a better one – whether that means a more spacious house or maybe one day down the road moving out of the area altogether.
“I wouldn’t say my family is living comfortably, but at least we have things that we can survive on,” he said. “My father and brother are working hard for the family. I’m the one to push it up now.”
Whitecaps FC begin their 2014 MLS season on March 8 versus New York Red Bulls at BC Place. Season tickets start at just $349 and single-match tickets start at $22, subject to applicable fees. The 'Caps also offer a flexible range of ticket products, including half-season tickets ($244), 5-packs ($149), student season tickets ($199), and a youth soccer half-season ticket ($100). For more information on all Whitecaps FC ticket options, call 604.669.9283 ext. 2 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.