Just days shy of his 17th birthday, Serge Ngoma delivered the biggest moment of his still-nascent MLS career.
With the New York Red Bulls level 1-1 with Atlanta United in the 89th minute following Lewis Morgan's equalizer from the penalty spot a few moments prior, an errant pass by Franco Ibarra to Alex De John was pounced on by the Homegrown Player and RBNY Academy alum, who made a goalward run and finished his chance past Atlanta goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo to give the Red Bulls a 2-1 victory.
"I feel blessed — even to be on the field, and on top of that being able to score in front of all the fans and all of my family," Ngoma told MLSSoccer.com after the match. "I can't even put it into words right now. It's crazy."
While it’s impossible to map out how his soccer career will progress in the future, for Ngoma, raised in North Plainfield, N.J. — just 20 miles from Red Bull Arena — Thursday’s goal was the culmination of a journey that started in his town's recreation league as a 3-year-old, eventually evolving into playing with travel clubs and youth soccer before joining the RBNY academy as a U-13 player five years ago. On September 23, 2020, he marked another milestone with his professional debut with New York Red Bulls II in the USL Championship against (ironically) Atlanta United 2, becoming the youngest player in RBNY II history (15 years, 77 days).
Then came a Homegrown deal with RBNY on February 17 and his MLS debut nine days later at the San Jose Earthquakes. Fast forward to four-and-a-half months later and his biggest milestone yet, as he not only found himself on the scoresheet for the first time as an MLS player but with the match-winner.
That journey took a bit of a twist due to a hamstring injury that sidelined him for several months prior to his return to the pitch in L.A. a few days ago. Reflecting on the recovery process, Ngoma mentioned the advice he received from his teammates.
"We have a great group here of supportive players, players who are like 16 years older than me, which is crazy," he laughed. "(But they) don't make you feel alienated because of your age. When I was going through my injury, they were constantly telling me, 'Keep pushing.'"
And as high a moment as Thursday's goal was for Ngoma, the lead-up to it wasn't without its sacrifices, including attending school online and having to forego many of the things other teenagers enjoy.
For him, it was well worth it.
"I can't go to all the parties, all the social functions," he said. "I had to give those up, but for a greater goal, which is to live my dream, which is being a professional footballer."