PORTLAND, Ore. – Danny Mwanga was in a need of a fresh start.
The Portland Timbers were glad to give him one where it all started for the No. 1 overall pick from the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
Mwanga is returning home to the city where he starred at Jefferson High School and then at nearby Oregon State University. The Timbers announced Wednesday they had acquired the 20-year-old player from the Philadelphia Union in a trade for beleaguered forward Jorge Perlaza.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for me to come back to my hometown and play in front of family and friends,” Mwanga said in a conference call with reporters. “I’m excited, and I can’t wait to get out to Portland and get to work.”
WATCH: Mwanga's long-distance drive
Since landing in the Rose City after fleeing his war-torn home nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, Mwanga flourished in the Timbers backyard. He made a name for himself at Jefferson, where he scored an astonishing 53 goals in nine matches. And in two years at Oregon State, he was named the Pac-10 rookie of the year and then conference player of the year.
That was more than enough for Union manager Peter Nowak to travel to Oregon, court Mwanga and then take him with the first pick in the team’s inaugural season.
But after scoring seven goals his rookie season, Mwanga struggled to find a place Nowak’s system. This year, he’s been in and out of the starting lineup and has yet to score.
“It would have been nice if things went differently,” Mwanga said. “It would have been great if I could have helped the team more. ... But it’s almost like a new beginning.”
Mwanga said returning to the Rose City to an organization that has shown interest in him since his college days is more than enough motivation to pick up where he left off in 2010. Both general manager Gavin Wilkinson and head coach John Spencer have closely watched Mwanga since they started evaluating talent before the Timbers’ MLS inaugural season.
“They really did all they could do to get me to come back here,” Mwanga said. “And coming here I think I owe it to them. Just having them at the top of the organization is a big motivation for me to work hard and be able to help the team.”
Mwanga also said he’s excited to line up next to Scottish striker Kris Boyd and another highly touted youngster in Darlington Nagbe, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2011 SuperDraft. Mwanga was at his best with the Union when playing with forward Sébastian Le Toux, who was traded to Vancouver this offseason.
“For me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to bring what I have and try to work together and help the team,” Mwanga said. “Hopefully I’m going to come in, and we’ll get to know each other really well and get on the field and start making progress right away.”
And, of course, Mwanga said playing in front of friends, family and the Timbers Army – in a Timbers kit – will be a dream come true. Philadelphia opened the season in Portland on March 12, and Mwanga played the final 30 minutes.
“There’s no doubt that the Timbers Army and the Timbers fans are one of the best in the league,” he said. “Being able to play here, and even though they weren’t cheering for me, I think it was a very good feeling. And now I know that I’m on their side, and I know they’re going to be cheering for me. It’s big.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.