CHESTER, Pa. – The advice itself may have been trite and predictable, but considering where it came from, Levi Houapeu paid special attention. The Philadelphia Union rookie was, after all, talking to his idol.
In 2009 Houapeu, a native of the Ivory Coast, met Ivorian soccer legend Didier Drogba, who was training at Houapeu’s school, UMBC, with his Chelsea teammates before a stateside game against AC Milan.
Houapeu, who starred at UMBC for four seasons before being selected by Philly in the third round of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, remembers the conversation well.
“He told me to keep working hard and my chance will come, and then once my chance comes to grab it,” Houapeu told MLSsoccer.com. “So I just kept working hard every day, waiting for my chance.”
At no point in his soccer career did that advice come in more handy than over the past couple of months, as Houapeu patiently waited to sign a contract with the Union.
[inline_node:309956]It took just about the entire preseason, but the 21-year-old rookie officially signed his deal this past Friday, just one day before the club kicked off the 2011 season. The Union also announced the signing of trialists Keon Daniel and Gabriel Farfan the same day.
“I came too far to give up,” said Houapeu, noting that Drogba also signed his first contract when he was 21. "I kept working hard and working hard and the deal came. I was happy. I was relieved. It was my first professional contract.”
Now comes the even harder part: trying to work his way onto the field. With Sebastien Le Toux, Carlos Ruiz, Danny Mwanga, Jack McInerney and Chris Agorsor in place, the Union have built a strong, deep stable of strikers.
But Houapeu, a natural forward who scored 30 goals through his last two college seasons, says he’s also been playing on the outside flank during the preseason, a position that helps him utilize his speed.
“It’s been an adjustment me coming from college to the pros,” said Houapeu, who moved to the United States when he was 12 when his father got a job at the Ivory Coast Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going to work hard every day, and I get to learn from veterans like Le Toux and Ruiz and Justin Mapp and Danny Mwanga," he said. "Hopefully, it won’t take long for me to get on the field.”
And if there ever comes a time when he gets frustrated or disenchanted, he can always think back to the advice he got from his Ivorian idol.
“It’s going to take some time,” Houapeu said. “But I know for sure I’m going to get there.”
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