PORTLAND, Ore. – Charles Renken’s memories of home haven’t always been fond.
Growing up exceptionally poor in Kalingalinga, Zambia, a slum just outside the capital of Lusaka, Renken was raised in a mud hut with no bathroom, electricity or running water. Before coming to the United States at the age of eight, his soccer field consisted of a dirt road and the ball would be constructed out of whatever plastic scraps could be found.
But for a few weeks earlier this month, Renken – who signed with Portland in January after returning to the US from Germany – was able to bask in the pride Zambia’s surprise journey to the pinnacle of African soccer as they won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time.
Rushing home after Timbers training on Feb. 12, the jovial 18-year-old midfielder was able to catch the final 10 minutes and the penalty kicks in Zambia’s thrilling victory over tournament favorites Ivory Coast.
“When they won, I was screaming,” said Renken, who immediately phoned his family, who are now in St. Louis. “Everyone back home was happy.”
Yes, much is going Renken’s way lately. But it wasn’t always so.
Dubbed US soccer’s next rising star at an early age, Renken’s story has been followed by soccer fanatics through the ranks of US youth national teams since 2005. By the age of 13, he was attracting the interest of the world’s biggest clubs, but a series of knee injuries derailed his progress.
Eventually, after extensive rehab, he landed on the U-19 squad of German Bundesliga club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim last season. But that didn’t work out, which left the door open for the move to Portland.
And he couldn’t be happier.
“I’m very excited because, of course, it’s Portland, a great team, one of the great teams in MLS, and the atmosphere here is one of the best in the league,” Renken said. “I’m just excited to get going and compete for my spot.”
And while Renken is competing for playing time at a crowded, veteran-laden midfield, he said his time so far with the first team has been valuable. He said training with seasoned pros is helping him learn what it takes to become a professional.
“So far, the feeling with the team, for me, couldn’t be any better,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the guys. If I need anything, I ask them. For me, it’s great. I can’t complain. So far my goal is to get as many games as I can and to improve as a player because it’s my first year, so I want to get up to pace with the league and then keep going.”
As Renken looks forward to his own season, he said the high he felt from watching his native country post a victory for the ages hasn’t worn off. And while he hasn’t spoken to any of his family in Africa or even returned to the country since he came to the US, he’s been following the celebration closely.
“We’ve never won it before, and it’s the Africa Cup of Nations, the highest you can go,” Renken said. “My uncle talked to some of the family at home. He said the fans, before the team got home, were at the airport and they were lined up all the way from the airport to the city just to see them. I know in Zambia they’re soccer crazy, and they’re still partying.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org