MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our second annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumaré.
Where He Was Then
Taken second overall in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft by the Chicago Fire, Bakary Soumaré was a dream come true for head coaches and public relations folks alike. He was long on potential and had a back story perfect for the local papers, and by his second year in the league he was a star.
He was a Defender of the Year candidate and a Best XI selection in 2008, and he coupled with Wilman Conde to create perhaps the best center back duo in the league.
Soumaré left MLS midway through the 2009 season on a transfer to French side US Boulogne, however, shortly after a much-publicized physical altercation with former Fire head coach Denis Hamlett unwillingly thrust them both into the spotlight.
Where He Is Now
It’s Soumaré’s first day with a cell phone in Germany, and his message comes through crystal clear: no grudges.
He’s 26 years old now and inching closer to three years as a pro in Europe. Whatever cocksure attitude he carried as a budding MLS superstar seems to have been replaced by some humility, patience and perspective.
No matter where a conversation about Soumaré goes, it almost always comes back to that summer afternoon in Houston, when things got ugly at halftime in the Fire locker room. He and Hamlett went tooth and nail at times in the press after the news of the incident broke, and Soumaré never played in another game with the club.
“Yes, there was an incident,” he says, “but people think, ‘Baky and Denis got into a huge brawl,’ and that’s not what happened. There is no war. We still talk.”
In fact, Soumaré still texts Hamlett during the holidays, and congratulated him on his recent hiring as an assistant with the Montreal Impact. He still texts, e-mails, calls or visits just about everyone from his Chicago days, including his old partner Conde, his veteran mentor C.J. Brown, former Fire coach Dave Sarachan, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman and even Cuahtémoc Blanco.
He also still calls Chicago home, even though he can make that claim about where his foster parents live (New York City), where he grew up (Paris) or where he was born (Mali). He visits Chicago regularly, still works out with former Fire conditioning coach Kale Hoyt, still schedules lunch with members of the Fire’s supporters group, still plays pick-up games with the kids at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
“What I loved about the Fire, it was a big family,” Soumaré says. “The front office, the team, the fans – they made it feel like I was a new member of the family. Everyone was pulling in the same direction.
“The Fire is the club of my heart,” he adds. “That’s where, as a soccer player and as a person, I had the best time of my life.”
His time in Europe has been a mixed bag of sorts, success mingled with some sobering realizations. He appeared in 65 games for Boulogne and wore the captain’s armband at times, but when the club was relegated to Ligue 2 after the 2009-10 season, the bottom fell out. Players were shipped away, coaches swapped in and out and Soumaré got a quick lesson about the business of European soccer.
“I missed playing for a team where no one cares about what team they’re going to playing for next, where no one cares about how big their bonuses are or extending their contract,” he says. “Some guys here, it’s almost like if they’re not playing this weekend, they don’t care if the team wins or loses. The team concept is missing.”
With eyes on a new challenge in Europe, he instantly focused on Germany, and entertained offers from 2.Bundesliga sides Fortuna Düsseldorf, FC Ingolstadt and the eventual choice, Karlsruher SC. He started a sixth-month loan with the club in January and hopes one day it will become a multi-year deal, but he has a year left on his contract with Boulogne after this season if Germany doesn’t pan out.
“When I left the States, I only looked at the soccer and the finances,” Soumaré says. “I wanted to play soccer in a big soccer country and maximize my revenue. But that part changes. There are other things. You want to be happy. And today, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been playing soccer.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he adds, “but today I’m happy.”
And that appears to extend to his role with the Mali national team. In 2008, he opted to forgo the lengthy process of waiting for his American citizenship and play instead for his birth nation, forever cutting ties with the US national team and leaving more than a few critics wondering if he’d made the right choice.
He’s since earned 13 caps for Mali (including a stretch from 2009-10 that included World Cup qualifying matches and the Africa Cup of Nations), but he missed the Africa Cup of Nations that wraps up this weekend thanks to a clause in his contract with Karlsruher that wouldn’t allow him to participate.
And yet, he watches and follows just about everything the US national team does, constantly wondering what might have been. He’s acquired his dual US citizenship, spends his offseason in the States and when he does visit Mali during the year, the local media call him “The American.”
“I don’t regret it, but sometimes I look back and it’s like, ‘What if?’” he says. “It’s a tough one, because nowadays for me, if there’s not a national team game, I never go to Mali. I don’t speak my native language [Soninke] as well as I speak English or French.
“I watch all the US national team games and I’m biting my nails. I look back and I was young and impatient then, but those are kids I played against and I’m good friends with. I have more friends on the US national team than on Mali’s team.”
There is peace, though, in his decision. His mother passed away just weeks before he was drafted in MLS and he felt a natural pull to one day play for his country, and for her. That gives him at least some respite when he wonders if he could have been a savior for the country he now calls home.
“What I hear all the time is, ‘Your mother would be proud of you.’ And that goes straight to my heart,” he says. “That’s where she’s from, that’s where my dad’s from, that’s where I was born. My dad told me one day, ‘You’ve accomplished a lot, but you playing for the national team, I’ve never been so proud of you.’”
“But you know what?” Soumaré adds. “If I played for the US national team, I think my dad would be just as proud.”
What They Said
“He was a beast. I thought he was made of steel. You couldn’t hurt him, and if you cut him, all you’d see is silver stuff coming out of there. After they put him back at center back, he and Wilman Conde was probably the best pairing back there the Fire ever had.”
– C.J. Brown, former Chicago Fire defender
WATCH: Soumaré's MLS career highlights