Shorthanded Sounders turn to "artist" Handwalla Bwana for attacking boost

Handwalla Bwana - Seattle Sounders - vs. Sporting KC's Khiry Shelton, Jimmy Medranda

SEATTLE – At 18 years old, Seattle Sounders rookie midfielder Handwalla Bwana is the youngest player on the club’s first-team roster.

For the next few weeks, at least, he’s also going to be one of the most important.

The Sounders’ start to the 2018 season has been decimated by injuries, especially to their attack. Forward Jordan Morris won’t play at all this season after tearing his ACL in February. Seattle’s only other pure striker, Will Bruin, is currently on the shelf for an undetermined amount of time with a partially torn plantar fascia.

Throw in a recent toe problem that has sidelined star playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro and a lingering knee injury to winger Victor Rodriguez, and Seattle’s attacking depth is currently stretched about as thin as it has been since head coach Brian Schmetzer took over midway through 2016.

Enter Bwana, the enticing Homegrown attacker who is coming off a dominant two-year run at the University of Washington.

Bwana has already appeared in seven of the team’s first nine matches, starting four of them. After subbing on in his MLS debut against LAFC at CenturyLink Field on March 4, he came within inches of scoring what would have been a dramatic late equalizer with a laser shot that rang off the woodwork. In Seattle’s 2-1 road win over Toronto FC win on May 9, he broke through with his first MLS goal, what turned out to be a game-winning second-half tally.

Even at his young age, the raw talent is obvious, and Bwana’s college coach at UW, Jamie Clark, said he’s intrigued to see what his former pupil can do with what figures to be an expanded role in the coming weeks.

“I think he’s proven he can do it. But he’s [ultimately] going to be a piece in the team,” Clark said in a phone interview with on Wednesday. “I don’t think they should necessarily be looking to him directly [when fully healthy]. But that’s the challenge. Right now, with all the injuries, he might have to shoulder a bigger load. And I think he’s up to that, it just won’t be as easy [as in a complimentary role].”

Bwana also has one of the more compelling backstories in MLS – profiled in detail by the Seattle Times last year. It’s a journey tailor-made for the big screen and makes his path to the Sounders all the more remarkable.

Originally from Kenya, Bwana spent six years at Kakuma refugee camp before his family was able to resettle in America back in 2010. Playing with family and friends at Kakuma, Bwana started forging the skills that would see him become a local standout for Ballard High School in Seattle and the Sounders Academy before going to UW.

But life was difficult, too. On an average day at Kakuma, Bwana would have to walk six miles just to get water and after relocating to America, the cultural adjustments were vast.

Bwana has referred to his gratitude for making it from those beginnings to the MLS stage in his few interactions with the media so far this season, and Clark also said it’s something he thought about as he watched him find the net for that first career tally against Toronto.

“I was just so happy for him,” Clark said. “Goals and assists certainly elevate your status, but I just am so happy to see that he’s been given the chance [to play] and he’s also been given the chance to express himself. Brian Schmetzer has been really good at trying not to strip him down and not trying to take away what makes him special. That’s been, for me, compelling, because not every young guy gets that opportunity, let alone thrives with it.”

Like any 18-year-old, Bwana is far from a finished product. Aside from becoming more of a goalscoring threat, the Sounders say they need him to bulk up, as he still has a slight frame that hasn’t filled out enough to consistently make the most of his skills against the physical defenses in MLS.

“He’s working on that. He’s putting in work in the gym,” Schmetzer said after a recent Sounders training session. “But his technical ability is very clean. He just needs to figure out how to be a little bit more goal-dangerous, which comes with experience. Sometimes it comes with just acclimating to [your teammates]. Sometimes that synergy takes a little to build.”

Even if the Sounders would have liked to keep Bwana in more of a limited role while he develops, right now they don’t have that luxury. While it remains to be seen if he’s a regular in Seattle’s starting XI in the short term, Bwana, along with fellow UW product Henry Wingo, will almost assuredly be tasked with eating up a fair share of minutes as the club works through its injury woes and upcoming World Cup absences.

Whether he’s up to that challenge could play a large role in determining if the Sounders can keep their heads above water until reinforcements arrive in the form of the new Designated Player that general manager Garth Lagerwey has said he’s going to be signing his summer.

“In the end, he loves to play,” Clark said. “Those great players, those great creators, they’re artists. I think he sees himself in that light. I don’t know if that’s because of his backstory or what, but you put a ball at his feet, in a game situation, he just loves the game.”