23MLS_siders-KAMUNGO

There are many ways to measure the stratospheric trajectory of Bernard Kamungo.

The distance he’s traveled from his Tanzanian childhood to become not just an FC Dallas player, but quite possibly their most important figure heading into the decisive Match 3 of their Round One Audi MLS Cup Playoffs series with Seattle Sounders FC at Lumen Field on Friday (10 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

The eight goals and three assists he’s notched for FCD across MLS, Leagues Cup and postseason play this year, most of them in clutch situations, as well as the financial stability his contract has brought to his family. Or the buzz his performances have earned him, including a place on MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR rankings and an invite to the US Under-23 national team’s October camp, where he tallied two game-winning assists in friendly wins over Mexico and Japan. Somewhat less tangible, but no less real, is the joy and inspiration he’s brought to his teammates, FCD fans and those who must weather the tribulations of refugee life as he has.

Then again, there’s also the simple but effective metric of his burgeoning list of nicknames from “The Abilene Dream” to a newer tag applied in the wake of his timely contributions in key moments: “Big Game Bernie.”

“Yeah, I've got a few,” Kamungo told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh on Wednesday. “I don't really care which one you call me, that’s the thing. People call me King Bernie, they call me Bernie, they call me The Abilene Dream. So basically there's a lot of them – there’s BK, too. So it's up to you, whatever you prefer calling me.

“I mean, it's a good thing. I’m always a happy person, I try to keep a smile on my face all the time. So if you enjoy calling me Bernie, go ahead. If you enjoy calling me Bernard, it’s up to you.”

Bernard Kamugno - goal celebration 1

Clutch performer

That easygoing outlook is part and parcel of the Bernie Kamungo experience. Because when you’ve surmounted the type of obstacles he has, dodging war, starvation, destitution and hopelessness before he’d even turned 15, what’s the point in sweating the small stuff?

“That will never leave me. That's who I am, and I will never change it, no matter where I go,” Kamungo said of the experiences he carries with him. “It’s something that can always push me to strive for more. … I know what exactly I'm fighting for. It’s a big difference. And then that's why I just can't ever change myself, over anything.”

Dallas are facing the playoffs equivalent of Mission: Impossible as they travel to Lumen Field. As if the overarching trends of strong home-field advantage in the postseason aren’t daunting enough, FCD’s history in the Emerald City is profoundly grim: In 21 regular-season and playoff visits to Seattle, the North Texans are 1W-14L-6D, with their sole win a 1-0 result in 2011 via a Brek Shea goal at what was then known as Qwest Field.

That said, if there’s anyone who won’t be the slightest bit intimidated by that kind of odds, it’s Kamungo, the 21-year-old winger who has skyrocketed from Cinderella story to crucial contributor with breathtaking speed over the past year-and-a-half or so.

Of the six MLS goals he’s scored this season, two were game-winners, two were equalizers, and the other two were the first and third tallies in Dallas’ 4-1 road win over the LA Galaxy, a must-win game to guarantee playoff qualification. He was clutch again on Saturday, assisting on FCD’s first goal and earning the penalty kick that garnered their second as they booked the Match 2 win needed to keep their season alive.

“He shows his character and mentality as a person and a player,” head coach Nico Estévez said of Kamungo on Decision Day. “He doesn't care about the opponent. He doesn't care about the situation of the game. He just goes outside and competes, and that's the best way that he can do it.”

Bernard Kamungo falling shot

Tanzania to Texas

Kamungo’s incredible, frankly miraculous tale has been well-chronicled – and deserves every bit of the spotlight now and in the future, in no small part because it’s still being written.

If you’re not yet familiar with his voyage from hungry child in the sprawling Nyarugusu refugee camp in western Tanzania to earning his first professional contract via an open tryout to out-of-nowhere MLS goalscorer, check out D Magazine’s excellent feature story by Will Maddox, or Jon Arnold’s thoughtful profile for The Striker, or one of the segments recorded by local television news outlets, or one of Garrett Melcer’s multiple moving pieces on FCD’s website, among others.

Living in a hut with neither plumbing nor power, Kamungo and his family were often lucky to eat one meal a day in Nyarugusu, where many thousands of exiles from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s brutal civil wars struggle just to survive. As a child, Bernie, as he’s usually known around Toyota Stadium, would secretly skip school to sell used clothes to augment the family’s meager income.

Soccer was a welcome and joyous escape, but an actual ball was well beyond their means, so he and his friends would construct a rough equivalent out of inflated plastic bags, surgical gloves or condoms and whatever else they could patch together. Kamungo says he’d never played on grass or even used a proper ball until he arrived in the United States at age 14, when his family was resettled by the International Rescue Committee in Abilene, a town on the dusty edge of West Texas’ great plains. In fact, Bernard doesn’t even know his date of birth – birthdays weren’t easy to celebrate under the acute hardships of Nyarugusu, and so the paperwork filed when he arrived on these shores simply reads 1/1/2002.

Though packed with its own set of challenges, this new life offered deliverance, providing a stable foundation on which the family built their own American dream. His parents worked, among other jobs, at a cookie factory, producing sandwich cremes, ginger snaps and the like – though Bernie quickly notes that he, both then and now, is “not really into cookies like that.”

Those thousands of hours of improvised play in Tanzania developed excellent dribbling skills, creative flair and a nose for goal in Kamungo. So even with little to no formal or tactical training, no access to pay-for-play youth soccer, he became an unstoppable force in Abilene, starring for his middle-school and high-school teams, prompting his big brother Imani to urge him to push towards higher levels. Imani went so far as to pay the $90 fee to sign up Bernard for open tryouts held in January 2021 by FCD’s second team, North Texas SC – without asking him first – then drove him the 200 miles east to Frisco for the big day, a trip lengthened by a flat tire en route.

Here the tale starts to blossom into something more like a legend. Kamungo’s talent was unmistakable, and within a day, NTSC had invited him to join their preseason squad.

Bernard Kamungo - DAL - dribble

Rapid rise

“With Bernard it was more the individuality. He could just take people on with ease, glide by them effortlessly,” recalled Eric Quill, NTSC’s head coach at the time, to Taylor Twellman in a recent episode of his “Offside” podcast about Kamungo. “Pure left foot, but could come inside and can combine with real finesse, and he was making guys miss consistently. He was either scoring a goal or setting up a goal – there was no stages of average in that hour and a half.”

Kamungo soon earned a second-team contract, scored a banger in his debut and went on to score six goals in 23 appearances for North Texas. He then racked up 16 in the inaugural season of MLS NEXT Pro last year, eventually earning a call-up to the first team, then a full MLS contract.

At that point, his inspiring rags-to-riches triumph would already be Hollywood material, no matter what happened in his MLS career. But the epic adventure just keeps getting better. Kamungo’s match-winning display vs. the Sounders last weekend was also the first time his family, who now live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, got the chance to see him play in person at this level.

“My professional career, I never had a time where my parents came and watched my soccer games,” he said. “I’d never taken it very personal, but it was always my dream, my family coming to watch me play. So on that game, when my mom was actually available to come and watch that game, it was a little pressure, because I'm like, ‘OK, now I've got to do something, make this game special for my family.’

“But I have to keep my calm and just do what I do best, which is score, assist and just win my individual battles. It actually ended up being a good game. It was very special for me and for the team, and I'm sure my mom enjoyed it very well as well. She was getting emotional, she was just telling me all about her experience. And it was just great, man.”

Bernard Kamungo - celebrates goals

Learning on the fly

Much like his big brother, mom and dad always set high standards, which might just have something to do with the tenacity he’s shown to reach this stage.

“They don't get satisfied easily. Because they actually act like they've done almost everything. So whatever you tell them, they feel like there's always room to do better or to improve all the time,” Bernard said with a laugh. “Basically, it's always African parents, they demand a lot. That’s always something that I always have to deal with since I was a kid and now it's the same thing.”

They’re not wrong, though – tremendous upside remains. One of the most amazing aspects of Kamungo’s impact is that he’s still playing catchup in key areas of his skill set.

“He still has deficiencies in his game, like, if you watch game two, that back pass that led directly to the [Jordan] Morris goal, for example,” noted Buzz Carrick, who has covered FCD for 3rdDegree.net since the club’s early days as the Burn. “When you're talking about team shape, and team tactics, and timing of press, and when to go and when not to go, those kinds of things are still a work in progress.

“There's a rawness to his game. But the instincts are so pure, and the skill set is so pure, that he's able to do things at an impactful level, even though he's still learning the game in many ways.”

No one knows this better than Bernie himself. Estévez has marveled at his hunger to improve, the speed and openness with which his young prospect processes instructions and works on his weaknesses.

“There's a lot of room for improvement,” said Kamungo. “I feel like from the age that I’m at right now, you just take one step at a time. Sometimes things come faster than I expected … sometimes I struggle with certain things, all of that because I didn't go to academies or anything like that.”

Overseas dreams

With Alan Velasco sidelined by a severe knee injury and his attacking mates Jesús Ferreira and Paul Arriola struggling for consistency, Kamungo’s speed, skill and vibrance is probably Dallas’ best hope of springing a major upset on Puget Sound.

“Particularly since Jesús Ferreira has cooled off over the back half of this season, Bernie has become a real difference-maker,” said Carrick. “He has an innate, instinctive one-on-one skill set, and if you get him in on goal, he's got a really high conversion rate in those situations. In particular, his instinctual timing of his runs when he's trying to get behind a defense – if someone's playing the mid-block, he has a pace to beat guys on a run over the top. Offensively speaking, he's really good about timing with those runs in the defense and putting defenses under pressure, which opens up the play for everybody.”

Whether FCD’s season ends this weekend or carries on to the Western Conference Semifinals, Kamungo figures to be a key contributor for 2024 and beyond. And given his rapid rate of development so far, he might just grow into the club’s next high-profile outbound sale, following in the footsteps of Ricardo Pepi, Bryan Reynolds & Co.

Bernie knows Europe is out there. He and Imani used to watch UEFA Champions League and Premier League matches in Nyarugusu as children, and he worked alongside several European-based teammates during last month’s US U-23s camp, building confidence that he can someday come to grips with that environment like he has with his many challenges to date. Quill, Estévez and others who’ve worked with him project a ceiling every bit high enough for him to reach one of the top leagues on the planet.

Kamungo is not rushing to get there just yet, though.

We all want to go and play in Europe and all that. So it's all a matter of timing,” he said. “Right now I'm just focused with FC Dallas, trying to get something for this club. This club has been amazing to me this whole time, it just trusted in me and gave me the opportunity to showcase my talents. And just to represent this whole community is just such a dream.

“Before I leave, I want to make sure I do something great for this club.”

Bernard Kamungo - cowboy hat

Wherever this journey takes him, Bernie plans to carry the lessons of Nyarugusu – and Abilene, and Frisco too – in his soul. Notably, he attended several NTSC games this year and made sure to drop in on his old team’s most recent open tryouts a couple of weeks ago.

During a cynical era in which refugees around the globe are marginalized, mistreated and even demonized for political gain, he’s proud of his roots, and urges others to recognize the humanity and potential within.

I was born as a refugee and I'm still a refugee till now, and that will never change. That's going to stick with me the whole time,” he said. “For me, it's all about opportunities. You don't know how much you help someone by just taking them from their refugee camp and put them somewhere where they have opportunities.

“There's a lot I can talk about – a lot of talent in refugee camps, there's a lot of people that can do a lot of different types of stuff, but because there's no opportunities, they will never get to show their talent. I'm one of those people that just got blessed, and being able to be given these opportunities where, just playing the beautiful game that I love, and people now are loving it, and I'm happy that I get to do this for my family and for myself. It’s just getting better all the time. And I'm always thankful for that.”