HOUSTON—At age 16, Rasheed Olabiyi faced a difficult decision.
Seeking an entrance into big-time soccer, Olabiyi left his parents and home in Ibadan, Nigeria to take residency at the famed Pepsi Football Academy, which has produced some of Nigeria’s best soccer players, among them Chelsea standout Jon Obi Mikel.
A big move for any teen, Olabiyi sought guidance from his uncle, Alabi Samuel Oladejo, of Lagos: a mentor, driver and one of his biggest supporters, someone who shuffled his life around to make the academy spot a reality.
“He kept pushing me from Pepsi Football Academy and through my professional career,” said Olabiyi, of his uncle. “I really appreciate all the help from my uncle. I think God sent him to me. I’m going to pay him back. He’s the one that took me to Pepsi, and I’m going to take him to this place one day.”
The move set Olabiyi's eventual career in motion. With his uncle's support, Oladejo daily driving the young player 30 minutes each way to the training fields, Olabiyi excelled in the youth system and landed a spot in the Nigerian top division.
“I started in street and went from there,” Olabiyi said.
While at the academy, Olabiyi developed his game, focusing on a high work rate and always playing positive soccer. His first touch is usually going forward, and he looks to play the ball into good spaces while rarely taking more than two touches.
“When you look at the elite Nigerian players, they play in the top leagues all over the world,” said Dynamo head coach Owen Coyle. “The good thing you know about the kids that come out of there is they have an appetite to do well. A lot of them come from underprivileged backgrounds so they have a hunger and fire to succeed.”
Getting noticed as a young player in Nigeria is extremely difficult. Playing conditions are not ideal, and the opportunity to garner scouts' attention is rare.
Even though there exist a handful of Nigerians playing in some of the world's top leagues, identifying talent there can be difficult for a general manager in the US.
Thankfully for Olabiyi, first-year Dynamo GM Matt Jordan has connections.
“I think it’s the utilization of key contacts we have in our networks around the world,” Jordan said. “Being able to have Rasheed come in and be a part of our team, what was good about that situation was he was able to train in our environment. We’re encouraged, and we think, given time working with our coaching staff, he can continue to grow as a player.”
Said Olabiyi: “As a player coming from my country, I always wanted to move career to Europe and start over here. I had to leave Africa because I played seven years with my club, which I finished there, and I told them I want to move my career to Europe, which is why I came over here. I believe with time people will know me here.”
Coyle liked his game and attitude, and once Houston opened up an international spot, Olabiyi finally had the contract he’d thought about when he left home at 16. Coyle said there’s much to like about Olabiyi as a player, especially given his experience playing seven seasons with successful Nigerian side Enyimba, whom he helped win six separate trophies, earning a best XI selection in 2014.
“He’s got attributes that fit in MLS,” Coyle said. “He’s young with an opportunity. He’s got a lot to learn, but the great thing is he comes on the training ground he’s receptive to that.”
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Since signing, Olabiyi has appeared four times and made a good showing in his only start. He’s learning the game with a new team, and while Olabiyi has been in some places where the new guy is kept at arms-length, he’s gotten a warm welcome in Houston.
“[DaMarcus Beasley] is a very good brother to me," Olabiyi said. "Giles [Barnes] is a good guy to me. He always talks to me and always wants to take me out. He’s a good guy, and I really appreciate him.
"A lot of the team, they are very friendly. My brother from Africa, Kofi [Sarkodie], is a really good guy. Here we’re one family and we’re out together, talk together and laugh together and work together.”
While Olabiyi works his way into the Dynamo mix, he has not forgotten who helped him get here. He wants to bring his uncle to the US to show him first-hand what their hard work achieved. Olabiyi also knows he has big shoes to fill with the pedigree of the Pepsi Football Academy.
“There’s a lot of goodness for him, by God’s grace, that I’m going to give to him in the future,” Olabiyi said. “Right now, he’s proud of me also. I’m going to compensate him one of these days.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.