Game of survival: Columbus Crew SC midfielder Tony Tchani's long road to stardom

In the fields, parking lots and streets of Cameroon, soccer is a game of survival.

You don’t play for a scoreboard or a scout. You play to keep playing, with four-on-four or five-on-five games filling hours of every day. A goal means another game; allowing one means waiting to get back on.

“Inside, you’re working so hard to make sure you don’t lose,” Tony Tchani reminisces about his soccer upbringing in West Africa. “If you lose, you might be out for a good 15 or 20 minutes. There was no time. It was just one goal and you’re out.

“After school, we would drop off our bags, get whatever balls we could and play soccer,” he continues. “I liked playing with small balls; the little [futsal] balls were always really fun to me. People would always say I was really good with them. I didn’t know why, but I was a guy who was always dancing around people and having fun. You never thought about making it a career. It was just about having fun.”

Of course, the career came later. And while Tchani uses a full-size ball now with Columbus Crew SC, he still likes to dance around rather than plow through defenders.

In many ways, those score-or-sit games in Cameroon made Tchani the player he is today, a 6-foot-4 box-to-box midfielder with plenty of brawn and lung-busting determination, but also a player who finds plenty of joy in the game, boasting uncommonly soft feet accustomed to making the best of makeshift fields and equipment.

“When people first saw me [in high school and college], if they hadn’t heard about me they would just think, ‘Oh, he’s just a big guy,’” Tchani says. “When they saw me actually play, they would say, ‘Wow, he can play.’”

It hasn’t always been that way in MLS, where, far from the makeshift fields of his youth, Tchani has often found joy hard to come by.

After a frustrating rookie season with the New York Red Bulls that frequently drew the ire of Thierry Henry, Tchani was traded twice, struggled with injury and failed to make more than 15 starts for three straight seasons. The No. 2 pick in the 2010 SuperDraft, a College Cup winner who'd drawn comparisons to one of the all-time MLS greats in Shalrie Joseph, became a story of unrealized potential.

Tony Tchani wasn't the next great anything. He was a cautionary tale.

But with the help of Gregg Berhalter and a position tailor-made to his style, Tchani has established himself as a crucial cog – a No. 8 both dogged in the tackle and smooth in possession – in a young Columbus squad that made unexpected waves in 2014 and is a trendy MLS Cup pick this season.

So crucial, in fact, that he may soon have to make a tough decision between the country that molded his game and the country where he plies his trade.

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Tchani was born in Bafang, a small city in the southwest of Cameroon, in 1989. But the midfielder is quick to point out his upbringing was anything but tumultuous, as he knows some might assume.

In fact, he’ll tell you he was lucky, a credit to the efforts of his mother, Marceline Gargom, a tailor and entrepreneur with employees of her own who worked out of the apartment she and Tchani shared.

“Growing up in Cameroon wasn’t as bad as people would [think about] African countries,” Tchani says. “I’m an only child, so my mom did whatever she did to make me be a better person and a better kid. I went to better schools; I went to schools where some kids couldn’t get in.

“My mom worked so hard to make those things happen. Sometimes the country wasn’t great, but she was always willing to do her best to make me feel comfortable and taken care of.”

And, of course, the game was ever present.

When Tchani was a teenager, his mother moved to the States for the first time, landing in Maryland, where she stayed with his uncle. Though the reason for the move was murky to him, he says he knew the plan was for him to join her in America at some point, even if the when and how were a bit of a mystery.

“She had some sort of issue, that’s why she had to leave,” Tchani says. “I didn’t get into details with that; it’s my mom’s life. I don’t think I have to ask her about those kinds of things.”

And while Gargom continued to take care of her son from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, always making sure to send money or other necessities from the States, nobody ever coddled him when it came to soccer, which proved a blessing once he finally joined his mother in Maryland in 2006.

Off the field, Tchani found himself far from prepared for what awaited him. He’d taken English classes in school back in Cameroon, but like many other students, he wasn’t particularly interested. “When was I going to use it [in French-speaking Cameroon]?” he thought to himself.

Like so many other immigrant students, Tchani found his refuge in soccer, where his language or his background didn’t come into play.

“I told my mom that something that was going to drive me and make me excited was playing soccer and going to school at the same time,” he said. “I would get so frustrated with the language and whatever was going on, and then I would go play soccer and have fun.”

But his first American high school didn’t offer that refuge from his day-to-day frustrations, an untenable situation for the young man far from home.

“I went to my mom and said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s hard,’” Tchani said. “There was American football, but I had no idea what American football was.”

Knowing her son couldn’t stay in a town without soccer, Gargom helped Tchani find a school in Norfolk, Virginia. He moved in with Mohsin Bouziane, a Moroccan soccer coach with a French wife. Everyone in the house spoke French and lived and breathed the game. Tchani felt at home.

Soon, Bouziane would become his legal guardian and one of the most important figures in his life. They watched his heroes like Zinedine Zidane and his favorite club Chelsea, and he learned a more structured interpretation of the game than the one he knew in Cameroon.

“We would sit around and talk about soccer; there would be a game and we would just sit together and talk about it,” Tchani said. “Without him, it would have been harder for me. I would have had to go somewhere else with a family who spoke English and didn’t know anything about soccer.”

Tchani became a standout player in high school, and was recruited by the University of Virginia. When he and Bouziane went to visit the campus for the first time, Tchani added another large piece to the chip on his shoulder.

“I fell in love with the school,” he said. “The campus was beautiful, the coaches were so nice. And we sat down with [Virginia coach George Gelnovatch], and he said to [Bouziane] that they really liked me and they’d like me to come to Virginia, but they weren’t sure if I would be playing.

“That was something that really drove me. I left the campus and thought, ‘Wow, he thinks I won’t be playing. I’m going to have to work hard and show him otherwise.’”

Score or sit? He’d done that before.

Before his first season began, Tchani had earned a starting spot with the Cavaliers. He was the 2008 ACC Freshman of the Year, scored 16 goals in his two seasons with Virginia, and helped the team win the national championship in 2009 before signing a Generation adidas contract with MLS before the 2010 SuperDraft.

He was selected second overall by the New York Red Bulls, and soon found himself on a team of several French-speaking players, including the legendary Henry. He expected to do what he’d done in Charlottesville: make an immediate impact.

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

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Thierry Henry has high expectations, and that meant the Frenchman was “always yelling” at Tchani during their time together.

Then a 20-year-old rookie learning the MLS ropes, Tchani says he would often make mistakes, prompting a Henry rebuke, only for him to “say something right back.” Eventually, Tchani realized that Henry’s barks weren’t mean-spirited; he was trying to help.

“One day he yelled at me in front of everyone in the locker room in English,” Tchani remembers. “I said, ‘Thierry, you shouldn’t’ be talking to me like that. You can talk to me in French. I’ll speak to you in French.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care what other people think. I’m talking to you because I want to make you a better player. Whatever I say is because I want to make you a better player.’”

Those familiar with Tchani’s 2014 campaign might be surprised to see the player he was during his rookie season. Now he plays with a rugged, composed confidence.

Back then? Tchani was tentative, and he admits it.

“As a rookie, I didn’t want to make mistakes,” he says. “I would just take the ball and play simple. I wouldn’t even turn sometimes because I didn’t want to turn the ball over. [Head coach Hans Backe] pushed me and said, ‘Tony, you have to play forward. You can’t play backwards.’”

Tchani made 27 appearances in his rookie season, but was traded to Toronto in April 2011. After 13 appearances with Toronto, the club traded him to Columbus that July. He missed the rest of the 2011 season with a knee injury. He made 22 appearances in each of the next two seasons, but fell out of favor with head coach Robert Warzycha during 2013.

With a 4-4-2 that seemed to actively avoid possession, Tchani said he found himself running back and forth for no reason, with the ball “flying over my head” most of the time. He wasn’t built for that kind of game, and worried he simply didn’t fit the system.

“I’m a guy who wants to be on the ball,” he says. “If I’m not touching the ball, I feel like I’m not doing anything… I get frustrated.”

When Berhalter took the helm in 2014, Tchani finally got the boost of confidence and the system he needed. He started 33 matches for the club, notching a career-high six assists. Along with Wil Trapp, who Henry praised effusively after an October win for the Crew, he’s the box-to-box presence in perhaps the best central midfield duo in MLS, young or old.

And although he missed Columbus’ home opener after receiving a one-game suspension for a challenge on the Houston Dynamo's Leonel Miranda, Tchani’s started 2015 in style, scoring his first regular-season goal in nearly three years and picking up where he left off in the middle of the park.

With his national recognition at an all-time high, some are even shouting for a national team call-up for both Cameroon and the United States, where he became a citizen in 2013.

The hype doesn’t reach Tchani, however. While some players admit to dream moves overseas or representing their country, he still has the same mindset he did when he was a kid playing just to stay on the field.

“Those things are out of reach,” Tchani says. “When the moment comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s always good to dream, but you can’t be dreaming that far ahead. It’s one step at a time. If I focus on doing well here, so many doors will open.”

Andrew King covers Columbus Crew SC for MLSsoccer.com.