One of the enduring joys of a new season is the new faces and storylines they so often deliver: Players or teams who burst into the limelight seemingly out of nowhere, producing performances that defy expectations and demand attention.

Minnesota United FC have been just such a side in MLS this year, racing out to a 4W-2L-2D start (14 points, 5th place in the Western Conference) despite a slow-moving change of technical staff leadership and the unexcused absence of linchpin playmaker Emanuel Reynoso. And no individual has personified the Loons’ new era – and its unexpected successes – more than Tani Oluwaseyi.

With three goals and two assists in just 219 minutes, the 23-year-old striker is tied with Robin Lod atop the MNUFC scoring chart. And all three tallies have been result-defining: He scored the opener in last week’s 3-0 road rout of Charlotte FC and netted last-gasp equalizers to earn home draws vs. Columbus and Real Salt Lake.

A young man who’d logged 11 career MLS minutes before 2024's opening day is now competing neck-and-neck with a decorated Designated Player, Teemu Pukki, for a starting job, and has already inspired a catchphrase: ‘Tani Time,’ a nod to his propensity for late heroics.

Tani team celebration

Years in the making

Even a devoted Loons supporter might not have seen this one coming, let alone MLS watchers elsewhere. Yet as is so often the case, the player himself has been grinding and suffering for quite a long time in pursuit of the doors that are now opening before him.

“It's something that I've been waiting for, for I guess the last three years,” Oluwaseyi (pronounced Oh-loo-wah-shay-yee) told MLSsoccer.com in a one-on-one conversation this week as he and his teammates prepared for Saturday’s home duel with fellow Midwesterners Sporting Kansas City, a matchup cheekily dubbed “the Nicest Rivalry in Sports” (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“I hoped that I could do it in year one, and that was kind of the goal going in, but everyone has a different journey, which is very evident in the game. So it took a couple of years, but I think being here now, being given the opportunity, the biggest thing for me is just grabbing an opportunity and making the most with it.”

Oluwaseyi has weathered enough pain in this game to recognize how precious such things are; his journey has hardly been straightforward. Born in Abuja, Nigeria, his childhood was immersed in the beautiful game – and not just the long hours of pickup games on streets and dusty pitches that have become the stuff of African legend. Visits to his grandmother, a devoted Gooner, in Great Britain provided an influential early taste of what was then the pinnacle of the sport.

“My dad's a really big, big soccer fan. So as soon as I was born, it was kind of ingrained into me – and my grandmother as well,” explained Oluwaseyi. “If you go to my grandma's house in England, which we did a lot while we were younger, she's a big Arsenal fan. So you'll see in her house, she has like a mini Emirates Stadium, she has a picture with [Thierry] Henry, she has a picture with Arsene Wenger. She has a picture holding up the Premier League trophy.

“So from a very young age, I've been seeing all these things and I've been exposed to it, and the culture in Nigeria is very, very predicated on soccer as well.”

Canadian culture shock

Then the scene changed drastically when he was 10. His parents, Debo and Kemi, decided to emigrate to Canada in pursuit of greater opportunities, opening a bakery in Mississauga. Tani, his sister Tami and his brother Tite found themselves plunged into a completely new environment in the chilly Toronto suburbs.

“It wasn't a move that my siblings or I wanted to make, if I’m being very honest with you,” said Oluwaseyi. “When you're young, and your whole life you've known one thing, it's always going to be really hard for you to move somewhere else. So going in, we weren't really sure what to expect, we hadn't really heard much of Canada at all, really.

“The only exposure we had with any other countries was going to England to visit our grandmother. So we were very familiar with the English way of things, but Canada, America, we'd never been. So it was definitely a culture shock to start. It took probably a year or two before we got going, and like every other kid who gets to somewhere new, you got to make the new friends. You got to figure out the ways of living.”

Hockey, they soon learned, was king in this unfamiliar place. Over time, though, Tani found his path in the greater Toronto area’s teeming soccer scene. His skills caught the eye of longtime grassroots coach Ron Davidson, and he was soon thriving with the GPS Canada academy program at club level and helping his school, St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary, dominate provincial competition.

Premier League exposure

The teenage Oluwaseyi had a lightbulb moment when Davidson organized a group of GPS players for a tour of England to play exhibition matches against their counterparts at some of the Premier League’s top clubs.

“We played Leicester City, we played Stoke City, we played West Brom, we played Brentford. So going there, I think I was 16 at the time, I remember that was the year that Leicester won the Prem, so we went to their training facility and actually met [Riyad] Mahrez and [Jamie] Vardy,” he recalled. “So to see them in person as they were doing that, for me it was like, 'oh wow.' You're right there, you're playing these guys, and we were winning games as well.

“So it's like, OK, I know that it's a completely different world and this is what they do for a living, even these kids at 14, 15, 16. But this is definitely something that I can do as well.”

At age 18, he got further encouragement from a trial stint at Huddersfield Town during the Terriers’ two-season stay in the EPL, even though a combination of internal flux at the club and lack of access to a work visa scuppered his hopes of earning a longer stay. Meanwhile, there was one pathway much closer to home that did not materialize: a shot with Toronto FC’s academy.

“Not at all. Like, there was no interest whatsoever,” said Oluwaseyi. “I didn't really get any looks at all, even through college, with TFC or any of the other [pro] teams in Canada.

“The biggest thing is even a lot of the guys who were my age and were in the same position as me who played for TFC at the time, a lot of them don't really play anymore. So it was one of those that, I knew I could definitely keep up with the level,” he added. “Playing for TFC was the pinnacle, like, you kind of made it at that time. And I felt like I could keep up with them and I could play with them, but the opportunity just never arose.”

Tani playing 2

Big Apple transformation

So he turned his focus south to take his next step, moving to New York City to continue his development at St. John’s University, where respected coach Dave Masur has for nearly four decades led a top NCAA men’s soccer program. Even for a kid who’d already experienced Abuja, London and Toronto, daily life in the Big Apple was a thrill on a whole other level.

“To this day, I say that's my favorite city ever, I think, just as a person who enjoys the hustle and the bustle, that kind of everyone's kind of doing everything all at the same time. It was such an incredible experience, there's so many different people, there's so many different things to do. The food's incredible, the people are so interesting,” said Oluwaseyi with a laugh.

“I joke a lot that like I feel like I'm from New York, and my teammates hate when I do it because they’re like, ‘you’re from Canada.’ I genuinely feel that in those three and a half years, I was so in love with the city that it made me feel like I wish I was from there. It's still something that in the back of my mind I'm like, at some point I have to live in New York again.”

As often as the college system is written off nowadays in terms of its value as an incubator for future professionals, SJU and the rugged competition of the Big East proved a vital finishing school for Oluwaseyi.

“To go into Dave Masur’s system where it's very primarily focused on your work ethic, I think that was perfect for me,” he said. “Because I have all the tools to be able to be in a high-pressing team, a team that works, and I built all those tools and all those habits that I got from Dave Masur, and took it into the pros.

“The life experiences I got there were second to none. In the soccer world it's kind of like, ‘Oh, you went to college? It's not the greatest thing in the world.’ But for me, I'm not who I am today without those three years. So I'm very, very grateful for the time there and all the people that I met and all the experiences that I had.”

Adding defensive dedication and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of attacking movement to his size and athleticism, he won the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award as a sophomore, helping the Red Storm reach the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament and earning a spot on the watch list for the MAC Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s highest individual honor.

Tani action 3

The Loons come calling

Then his progression got knocked off course by a devastating one-two punch: the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering disruption of the college calendar, followed by a serious knee injury that ruled him out for nearly his entire senior season. Keen to both help his team and show his readiness for the next level, he returned to the field at the tail end of the campaign, a decision he looks back on differently today, as further complications limited his ability to participate in combines and showcases ahead of the 2022 MLS SuperDraft.

“Going into the draft, I wasn't really sure where I was going to land or who was going to take a gamble on me, because for the most part they were going off my sophomore year,” he said, “because junior year there was such a small sample size that I knew a lot of it would be taking it on, ‘OK, we've seen glimpses of what he can do.’ So it was definitely an uneasy moment for me.”

It was MNUFC who would take that gamble on Oluwaseyi, at 17th overall, their sole pick in that year’s draft. Then-head coach Adrian Heath, a striker in his own playing days, liked what he saw of the Nigerian-Canadian despite concerns about his recovery from knee surgery.

“Tani has probably the most upside potential of any player in the draft,” said former Minnesota technical director Mark Watson at the time. “Speaking with Adrian, he saw a lot of qualities that transfer to a top-level striker. All-Big East player of the year, he's on the Hermann watch list, this is someone who has scored goals, and we felt was under the radar a little bit.”

Oluwaseyi carries deep gratitude towards Heath for giving him a chance. Yet there also feels like a measure of ambivalence in the mix, too, because the Englishman’s well-established reluctance regarding young players limited his prospects for first-team minutes.

That said, any hopes Tani had of making a rookie splash were dashed by lingering knee issues, followed by hamstring and Achilles injuries that restricted him to MLS NEXT Pro action with the Loons’ second team.

He was forced to bide his time again in 2023, informed that his place on the MNUFC depth chart was low enough that a loan to USL Championship side San Antonio FC was his next assignment. Oluwaseyi embraced that, dominating the second division with 16 goals and seven assists in 25 appearances to break SAFC’s single-season scoring record.

His roaring start to this year confirms to him that the loan was a blessing in disguise.

“At the time I probably didn't agree with the decision, but I think looking back on it, it was definitely the right thing for me,” he reflected. “Even if I had stayed with Minnesota last year, I'm definitely not getting the game time and the experience that I was able to get at San Antonio. So I think all that kind of worked in my favor moving on to this year, where our coaching staff and the training staff put their trust in me since day one.”

Heath’s dismissal in the final weeks of the ‘23 campaign meant the exit of the only coach MNUFC had known in their MLS era, heralding a new era inaugurated by chief soccer officer and sporting director Khaled El-Ahmad and Eric Ramsay, his choice for head coach.

Perhaps no one has benefited more from that transition than Oluwaseyi and peers like Caden Clark and Devin Padelford. Even a modest injection of young blood has reaped rapid, marked dividends for a veteran-dominated squad.

“Like anything, if you're doing the same thing for a while and it's not working, sometimes it's probably better just to get a change just to get new ideas and new people inside,” said Oluwaseyi.

“Credit to Adrian Heath, he did an incredible job the five years he was here, but I think it just got to the point where the front office felt that it was probably in the best interest of the club to kind of get a change. And I think we're seeing the benefits of that now.”

Canada or Nigeria?

While he recognizes as much as anyone that it’s still early days in his breakout, Oluwaseyi does occasionally allow himself to ponder the next phases of the dream he’s been chasing since he was 5.

Could international soccer be in his future? Just the idea is more fuel for the fire.

“It comes up every once in a while, and I'm lucky enough to have both Canada and Nigeria that I can represent. And I love both countries so much,” he said. “It's very far away down the line, but it's whoever really shows that they want me the most, I think would be a big thing for me. Because I'd be very, very happy to play for either one.

“God willing, it'll happen soon. But I'm very patient and just kind of taking things as they come.”