EAST HANOVER, N.J.—Judging by his ability on the pitch, you’d think 14-year-old Samuka Kenneh had been playing soccer his entire life. But that's not the case.
Samuka only began to focus on soccer three years ago when his older brother moved from Liberia to live with Samuka and his family in Bronx, New York – but that still did not stop the younger sibling from being one of six finalists to advance from the New York Red Bulls tryouts for Sueño MLS 2016.
Samuka's road to the competition finals may have started in earnest this past weekend, but his journey began in Liberia – a small country in Western Africa with roughly 4.5 million inhabitants – before his family immigrated to New York when he was only a year old.
Not all four of his siblings were able to make the move, though. His brother, Dauda, stayed in Liberia, and did not make it over to the United States until a few years ago. Before his older brother's arrival, Samuka’s interest in soccer qualified as trivial, as he instead focused on riding his skateboard around the neighborhood.
“He never had an interest in soccer. Then when his brother arrived from Africa, he became a soccer player,” said Lassana Kenneh, Samuka’s father. “They decided to practice together. Every day and every night, there’s nothing he does except for go to school to acquire an education and play soccer.”
When the brothers were finally reunited after not seeing each other for nearly 10 years, Samuka and Dauda bonded through the game, practicing every day for hours on end.
“I didn’t have anybody to support me, to improve me,” Samuka said. “Then when he came from Africa, he gave me influence and he helped me train.”
Within three years, the family has seen both sons achieve success on the pitch, with Dauda already finishing his freshman season at nearby Monroe College, and Samuka excelling in his eighth grade-year at MS 235 Urban Science Academy in the Bronx and playing for club team South Bronx United.
In addition to his older brother, Samuka considers soccer star Lionel Messi one of his idols, as do many players his age. But Samuka's love for Messi does not just stem from the Argentine's goal-scoring, instead highlighting Messi’s fearlessness when attacking larger opponents and an unselfish playing style.
“My favorite thing is when someone scores a goal,” Samuka said. “I just give assists and passes leading to goals. It helps develop us going forward, passing the ball and switching around.”
Samuka’s generosity on the pitch complements his willingness to line up wherever coaches ask of him. Traditionally a play-making midfielder, Samuka spent the first day of Sueño MLS trials in his preferred position before moving to the relatively unfamiliar left back position on Day 2.
He still managed to impress the Red Bulls' coaching staff both days.
“He’s versatile, he’s quick and he gets forward well from that back position,” said Red Bulls Director of Youth Programs Bob Montgomery. “He’s a guy we’re certainly interested in seeing more of.”
Samuka is equally as interested in putting his soccer aspirations on the fast track by winning the Sueño MLS finals on May 4-7 in Los Angeles. It will not be easy, of course, but he will have all of his family, including his older brother, rooting him on.
“His dream is to play for MLS and then play for the United States,” Lassana said. “This is the beginning of his dream coming true. We’re really excited for him to have this.”