Soccer can be so, so much more than just a game. William Agada is proof.

The sport has delivered him from Nigeria’s hinterlands to the Israeli league, and now on to a starring role at Sporting Kansas City, where he topped the 2022 scoring chart (8g/2a in 12 league games) despite arriving in midsummer and thus playing less than half as many minutes as his attacking colleagues. In the process, he and fellow newcomer Erik Thommy more or less salvaged SKC’s up-to-that-point brutal season, and fueled optimism of a dramatic turnaround at Children’s Mercy Park in 2023.

Like many such storybook sagas, it all hinged on one fleeting, fateful decision.

A leap of faith

Agada was 17 in the spring of 2017, completing his schooling while playing for second-tier side Mighty Jets FC. He spent Monday through Friday in a club-provided dormitory in the city of Jos, some 80 miles away from his home in Bauchi in northern Nigeria, where he visited his family on weekends. Guided by his father, Pius, a solid player in his own youth, Willy had made it that far by showing potential as a kid on dusty dirt fields for a grassroots team called Red Scorpions. But the next step was the hardest.

Like millions of aspiring young players across Africa, he was chasing the long-shot dream of a professional career despite humble means. Hungry for opportunity, exhausted by the search for it, worn down by the sacrifices, the instability, the 12-hour days, leery of the many scam artists who prey on those hopes.

A friend named Aruna asked Willy to tag along with him to take part in a trial event in Abuja, the nation’s political capital; a scout had landed from overseas and was hunting for gems.

“All the time you have scouting programs. I can’t count how many scouting programs I go in, where someone comes just to screen players that they can take back to Europe. It’s a lot that I did,” Sporting’s 23-year-old striker recalled to MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging conversation this week. “One day [Aruna] said, ‘bro, let's just go and have fun and go home.’”

Agada, however, was skeptical. Abuja was a long bus ride to the southwest of Jos, and he’d have to squeeze this trial in without risking a late return to Mighty Jets, his primary source of income, however modest those wages might be.

“I’m like, bro, I want to go home. Do you know how many scouting programs I went to in my life? But he’s like, c’mon, c’mon – excited, you know? I’m like, OK, let's do it,” said Agada.

“I'd been to so many scouting programs and I didn’t really care anymore,” he added. “I was there purposely because of my friend, because I don't want to disappoint him. And then it happened.”

This particular talent evaluator had arrived from Israel, and Agada’s skill and dynamism caught his eye. Could he come back the following day for a longer look, allowing the scout to log a bit more video for evaluation?

“So this is how the journey started,” said Agada, flashing one of the high-wattage grins that helped him make fast friends when he joined SKC. “We were always looking. ‘Ah, a white man is coming to pick players.’ Lots of players [at that event], like 80, and they're looking for two strikers. You can imagine how crazy is that. Lucky me that day.”

Agada Thommy
Willy Agada and Erik Thommy revitalized the second half of Sporting KC's 2022 season.

Humble beginnings

There are few sure things in Bauchi. It’s an arid region on the fringes of the Sahara, well removed from bustling cities like Abuja and Lagos, prone to instability caused by Boko Haram and other insurgent groups, whose acts of violence occasionally forced Agada and his teammates to hunker down at home and miss training sessions.

“Always, you just need to be smart. Especially on the north side, things happen,” explained Agada. “Sometimes some fake agent will tell you, ‘hey, give me $20, give me $50, give me $500, I'm going to take you to Europe.’ … It’s business. Football is big.

“That's why I say to people, I just thank God. It's all about grace. They’re like, What do you mean, grace? No, you're running, you're working your ass off. I’m like, you don't know what I'm saying. I tell you, you need grace. It’s not just the talent. You need grace to go out from that environment, that North side, because we don't have a platform, we don't have those people to come look at us. You can work your ass off, train three times in a day, but no one is seeing you, even if you play good.”

Two months after that trial, he found himself jetting to Tel Aviv to join the youth system at Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem, a fan-owned breakaway club since re-christened Hapoel Jerusalem in the wake of the original outfit’s 2019 financial collapse. Though he doesn’t consider himself a devoutly religious person, his Christian background left him in awe as he lived and played among a litany of sacred places around the Holy City.

Navigating cultural adjustments and loan stints around the Israeli leagues, Agada kept banging in goals, honing the blend of athleticism and cleverness that makes him such a handful for defenders. In 2021-22 he finished as Hapoel Jerusalem’s leading scorer as they narrowly dodged relegation on their first campaign back in Ligat Ha`Al, the top flight, in more than two decades.

Path to MLS

Halfway around the world, Peter Vermes had taken notice.

“I really liked his ability to hold the ball up. He's a really strong guy,” KC’s manager and sporting director told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday, offering high praise for Agada as both a player and a person. “He is one of the strongest players I've been around, and it's natural, that's what's incredible about it. He's a pretty fortunate guy from that perspective, because he's just incredibly powerful.

“At the same time he has this – and you can see it when he plays – he has an unquenchable desire to score. And when you have that, those guys usually wind up finding themselves in a lot of really good positions to score. And then the final piece is, he's incredibly brave,” added the veteran coach, citing one particular goal Agada scored vs. Minnesota United FC in September 2022 in which he risked a full-speed collision with Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair to get his head onto an inviting cross from Ben Sweat.

It was a trademark Sporting sequence. Kansas City’s tactical system often hinges on the ability of the No. 9 to bring teammates into the attack and finish chances, and their ambitions for 2022 took a hammer blow when Designated Player Alan Pulido was lost for the entire season (knee injury) well before it had even begun. Things didn’t really turn around until Agada began starting at the end of July, the prelude to SKC’s dramatic reversal via a 6W-2L-2D record down the home stretch.

Assuming none of the Liga MX transfer rumors swirling around Pulido come to pass, a full season with both him and Agada available would seem to raise the ceiling of what’s possible in KC.

“I don't think what he did last year was a one-off,” said Vermes of Agada. “Those qualities are in him. I think the real thing is going to be how he continues to grow within our team. Because last year, as phenomenal as he was, there are certain aspects of our game that he needs to improve on. And he knows that.

“He had to hit the ground sprinting – not running or jogging, but sprinting, because we were already past the halfway point at that juncture.”

Willy Agada shares Sporting KC gear back home in Nigeria.

Hometown Hero

It’s safe to say Agada has embraced his opportunity in North America. Already a success story in his hometown, over the winter he got many friends and family back in Bauchi kitted out in SKC colors thanks to a hefty equipment donation from the club.

“In my ‘hood, if you say Agada or Willy, everyone knows the family there. Thank God!” he laughed. “Because we bring a lot of jerseys from Sporting whenever I'm going home. When the season finished, Sporting gave me a lot of jerseys – shout out to Sporting – to just take back home. But I didn't post it [on social media], because you know how the tradition says, always do things in silence. You don't need to always post everything.

“Everyone was happy, a lot of people have Sporting jerseys in my ‘hood now. So it’s super exciting.”

He’ll be back there again soon enough. Agada says he doesn’t want to spend his downtime anywhere other than Bauchi, where he aspires to contribute to the community over the long term – especially by someday helping rising young players gain vital exposure like he finally did.

“You have a lot of big, big talent here that they're just waiting for this opportunity,” he said.

“Coming from Nigeria,” added Agada, “everybody has his own, I will not call it sad story, but what makes us more strong. It’s a process that when you when you go through it, you need to respect it. Like, when you’re pushing you’re like yes, I know I'm doing it right. I'm happy I did those things, because the lesson I learned before, it taught me so many things, how to respect life and how to appreciate things.

“So if I will go through all this kind of struggle, there is nothing, not even a word, that will make me break down because you said a bad word to me. I just need to keep going. There’s so many things that I've passed through before going here.”