VANCOUVER, BC – Two weeks ago, Theo Bair caught the eyes of the MLS world with a spectacular volley goal. It was the product of months of effort from the Whitecaps FC Academy graduate, who continues to find his feet at the professional level.
Rewind six months, and it was his fellow 1999-born academy grad Georges Mukumbilwa who nearly had his own moment to remember.
“I thought it was going in, I started celebrating,” remembers the 19-year-old of his strike ringing off the crossbar in February’s preseason match against LA Galaxy.
Close only counts in horseshoes as they say, but that play served as a metaphor for Mukumbilwa. He didn’t quite finish the way he wanted, but just like Bair, he’s brought a mentality to keep improving each and every day.
“Theo works hard every day. I’m just happy to see him doing his thing.”
When you talk to Georges about his journey and the people he admires, those two words come up again and again: hard work.
As a 14-year-old in 2014, he left his family in Winnipeg, Manitoba to move to the Whitecaps FC MLS Academy in Vancouver. It wasn’t easy.
“My first year was really hard, it was tough,” remembers the now 19-year-old. “I thought about quitting, going back home.”
But Georges’ mother Feza wouldn’t let her son give up on his dream, not after everything they had been through.
Georges was originally born in the Democratic Republic of Congo before his family escaped the civil war to move to a refugee camp in Kigali, Rwanda when he was very young.
When Georges turned 13, Feza was able to move with him, his brother Tchakas and his sister Faranga to a new start in Canada. From there, Georges began to play organized soccer. He starred at youth club Portage Trail under coach Vince Scerbo, which earned him a spot with the Manitoba Provincial Team.
He knows that none of that would have been possible without his mother’s sacrifices.
“She’s very inspirational. She’s a hard working woman. I’m just trying to be like her and all the hard work she does. I’m trying to work hard and pay her back.”
As for peer role models, he hasn’t had to look far for another person who shares his work ethic.
For two years he lived together in the same billet home as Alphonso Davies – himself a former refugee who moved to Canada, and a player who he played alongside as he pushed through the ‘Caps system.
“He’s a hard working guy, I’m happy for him. We’re still very close, we talk all the time.”
TAKING HIS CHANCE
With the first team in transition during this past preseason, an opportunity opened for some of the ‘Caps young prospects to catch the eye of head coach Marc Dos Santos. Mukumbilwa was one of eight players in the academy to travel to Hawaii.
Mukumbilwa stood out, showing signs that he could become a first team player.
“They told me I did good, but they wanted me to keep doing my thing and showing improvement with the Dev Squad.”
So Georges played with the Whitecaps FC Development Squad, the ‘Caps team of top young prospects which serves as a bridge to and extension of the first team.
He travelled with the group on their tour to England, notably making his mark in a match against Brighton & Hove Albion’s Premier League 2 team.
Now he becomes the third player to be transferred out from that team this year. In March it was goalkeeper Thomas Hasal of Saskatoon signing an MLS contract. At the start of August it was Calgary's Chituru Odunze transferred to Leicester City. And that’s not even to mention the jump that Bair, an Ottawa native, has made over the course of the year from playing with the Development Squad to becoming an MLS regular.
“It’s kind of proving its concept in terms of what we need it to do to bridge that gap,” noted Craig Dalrymple, Whitecaps FC player development and academy recruitment director. “Marc [Dos Santos] has enabled and embraced these young players coming through, which has helped the process.”
And that’s music to the ears of Mukumbilwa, who cherishes the brotherhood that he has built in the academy.