Sarkodie's maturation comes just in time for Dynamo
HOUSTON — Kofi Sarkodie wasn’t expecting a correction.
It was his online video, after all, a recurring segment for the Houston Dynamo club website dubbed "Morning Kofi." But the rookie right back was in for a rude awakening in 2011 when, alongside goalkeeper Tally Hall, Sarkodie introduced himself as a “midfielder-slash-defender.”
“I was like, ‘Uh-uh, no you are not!’” Hall remembers. “’You are a defender!’”
Sarkodie made the simple switch to calling himself an “attacking defender,” but actually living out that role during his first two seasons in Houston, leading up to MLS Cup on Saturday? That’s been a bit more difficult.
Coming out of college after his junior season, Sarkodie’s eight goals and six assists at the University of Akron made it clear he spent plenty of time getting forward. Despite being projected as a difference-maker and a top-four pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft because of that attacking potential, Sarkodie slipped to the Dynamo at No. 7 largely because of to concerns about his defending.
WATCH: Sarkodie sees red in 2011
Those concerns appeared well-founded when he played in just nine of the Dynamo’s 64 league and playoff games through August 2012. When he did play as a rookie, he often looked timid and tentative, opting to linger near the halfway line and send most passes backward to the safety valve of center back or goalkeeper instead of bombing forward down the right flank as he did with Akron.
“There’d be times where people were telling him to run forward, and I’d be telling him to run back, because I need him as my extra plus-one at the back,” Hall said. “It’s definitely a balancing act, and when he first came to the team, trying to balance the defending side with the attacking side, especially in this league with this team, was difficult.”
The normally outgoing and affable Sarkodie, who was just 19 when he was drafted, also seemed to lose his confidence and perhaps some of his innocence after the United States U-23 team failed to qualify for the Olympics in March. Sarkodie started two games in the tournament, including the stunning 3-3 tie with El Salvador that ended the United States’ dreams to compete in London.
Sarkodie played in two reserve games when he returned to Houston, but he also missed some time with a foot sprain, seemingly lacking the motivation that had driven his strong preseason.
“Not qualifying [for the Olympics] was definitely difficult,” Sarkodie said when asked to pinpoint the nadir of his season. “That and not getting playing time early in the year – those things are always difficult for any professional. Those are times when I tried to stay as focused as I could and do the little things right.”
August brought a chance for Sarkodie to show his focus, as he played every minute in CONCACAF Champions League road games at FAS and Olimpia, setting up one goal with an early right-wing cross, a weapon rarely seen in 2011. So after a tired Dynamo backline gave away a goal just seconds into the Sept. 2 match in Chicago, Sarkodie got the nod from head coach Dominic Kinnear as a halftime replacement for Andre Hainault.
WATCH: Sarkodie’s goal dooms D.C.
Sarkodie has not left the primary lineup since, playing the full 90 minutes in 13 of the Dynamo’s past 14 games in all competitions, including every playoff contest. That continuity and consistency, aided by the ample work rate of designated player Boniek García at right midfield, have helped Sarkodie regain some of the confidence he had been missing.
“I think gaining momentum with time on the pitch has allowed me to figure out and have a better understanding, tactically, of when I can go forward,” Sarkodie said. “I understand more the dynamics of the team. If you know the guys on the pitch and you’re there and playing games in and out with them, then you understand their tendencies and when you might have an opportunity to step forward and when it’s best to step back.”
The last three months have seen Sarkodie move the ball forward and surge down the sideline more than ever before, but he’s been busy defending, too. Once targeted as the weakest link in a veteran Dynamo backline, Sarkodie has squared off against Chicago’s Patrick Nyarko, Kansas City’s Kei Kamara and D.C. United’s Nick DeLeon (combined 21 goals, 19 assists) during the postseason, holding his own while helping the Dynamo post a 0.80 postseason goals against average.
“Defending well is the most important thing back there, but I think he’s looked confident, and he’s joined in [the attack] well,” Kinnear said. “He’s got a good partnership with [García] out there, and he’s been given a chance and played well enough to keep himself in the team.”
The individual high point of Sarkodie’s brief career arrived on Nov. 11 in the first leg of the conference final against D.C. United. He made a dangerous run forward in the 77th minute and skillfully beat a defender with a mid-air touch before stinging a left-footed volley that Joe Willis saved. Four minutes later, Sarkodie exchanged passes with Luiz Camargo at the top of the penalty area before driving a right-footed shot inside the far post for his first professional goal. The strike was an exclamation mark that took Houston’s win from standard to dominating, and it seemed to seal Sarkodie’s arrival as a still-maturing ‘attacking defender.’
“I was really happy for him to get that goal; I told him after that it was about time,” Hainault said after the game. “I know he wants to get forward and help out offensively, but I think he’s been doing a better job defensively and becoming more complete. That’s huge for him and huge for us.”