Respect the Hustle: Goals only part of entrepreneur Quincy Amarikwa's game

WHEN QUINCY AMARIKWA FIRST BROKE INTO MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER in 2009, he found that one of the most difficult things about being a rookie was getting people to pronounce his last name correctly.

“It’s like ‘America,’ but with a ‘w’ at the end,” he’d say politely, but confidently.

Today, things come a lot easier to the well-traveled striker, who is living out his own American dream as MLS’s most self-made man. And in this moment, he is using you.

Not in any sort of nefarious sense. He’s too nice a guy for that. But as he sits here on a plastic chair in the media room at Avaya Stadium, he’s keenly aware that the reason you’re here to interview him isn’t because he’s a soccer superstar. He’s not. The San Jose Earthquakes veteran knows he’s no household name either. And he’s fine with that.

Amarikwa knows you’re here mostly because of that goal, an audacious 40-yard chip against the Portland Timbers in March that might end up winning AT&T Goal of the Year. And he knows, as an eight-year MLS journeyman, that any attention he gets will help him get that much closer to his life goals.

“It’s all calculated,” Amarikwa says with a wink.

That master plan has nothing to do with soccer. In fact, Amarikwa isn’t much of a fan of the game at all. He’s pretty good at it — although his 22 goals and 17 assists over eight years spent with four different teams don’t tell the whole story of what he can do — but he has little interest in becoming a star.

Instead, at age 28, Amarikwa has drawn out a map that, if all goes according to his calculations, should have him onto the road of big-time entrepreneurship within the next 10 years.

“[Most] guys, they genuinely love the game, they want to be the best player, they want to play overseas or they want to play in the top leagues in the world,” he explains. “For me, my goal is to leverage soccer as a means to pursue the other things that I’m passionate about. I just happen to enjoy playing soccer.”

Which is a good thing. Although Amarikwa has never broken into the elite of MLS, he’s proven himself as a timely goalscorer, a shockingly effective holdup man despite his listed 5-foot-9 frame and a reputation as one of the hardest workers in the league.

“He also loves to talk,” laughs fellow Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski, who isn’t exactly known for a quiet personality either. “He loves talking about anything. He’s got a masters in life, I think.”

Spend some time with Amarikwa, and you quickly begin to feel like you’re at a motivational seminar. He rattles off life philosophies, maxims and clever adages like he’s delivering a TED Talk. Among the gems you might hear:

  • “Overnight success is really years or hundreds of hours of work unrecognized and unseen.”
  • “People underestimate how much time they have to do stuff. Your most valuable asset is time."
  • “You stick with anything long enough, you’re eventually going to be successful at it. Even if you play the lottery long enough — and it might take a long time — you’re eventually going to win.”
  • "If I see someone doing something, there’s no reason I can’t do it, too. And if I don’t see anyone doing it, that means there’s opportunity for me to be the first.”

There’s a reason for this: Amarikwa actually does listen to TED Talks. Lots of them. He also listens to countless other business podcasts and online seminars, and voraciously reads books on entrepreneurship.

It may sound like he’s trying to pull a hustle on you, but it’s also a window inside the mind of one of the most uniquely wired players in MLS.

Amarikwa has never been a star in MLS, but someone has always found a home for his dogged hold-up play, clutch goal-scoring and freak athleticism. He's played for four clubs during his eight years in the league, including two stints with San Jose, scoring 22 goals to go along with 17 assists in 155 appearances, only 78 of which are starts. That means he has to set himself apart other ways: "I recognize that and I’m fine with that. So I’m going to take matters into my own hands."      Photo via USA Today Sports Images

SPEND TIME IN A LOCKER ROOM AROUND THE LEAGUE AND MOST OF THE BANTER you’ll hear is filled with, say, Lionel Messi’s latest mind-blowing goal, last night’s episode of Game of Thrones or that hot new Drake record that just dropped. Amarikwa will listen, but his brain is often elsewhere, racing 100 miles an hour thinking about his next business move. And how he believes he’s got a leg up over all of his peers on how to prepare for life after soccer.

“He’s a hustler,” says former teammate Mike Magee. “He’s trying to make a name for himself. If no one was going to give him a chance, he was going to do it himself.”

Quincy Obinna Amarikwa has been trying to make a name for himself since he was a kid growing up in California’s heartland. Bakersfield is a little more than 100 miles north of Los Angeles, but from a glitz and glamour perspective, it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Its economy is dominated by agriculture and the oil industry, which means for most folks living there, there are no get-rich-quick schemes or the promise of a sudden windfall.

A staunch work ethic is in the DNA of the Amarikwa family. That was mostly thanks to Quincy’s father, Charles, who was born in Nigeria and followed a job in the oil industry to the West Coast. From an early age, Quincy understood the value of creating his own opportunities and maximizing them — even if he had to utilize those closest to him.

When he was a first-grader, he made a lending library out of his books, and charged his sisters a fee to borrow them. In middle school, he would have his grandfather drive him to Costco, where he’d buy candy bars in bulk and then turn around and sell them to his schoolmates at a profit. In high school, he taught himself how to hack his Xbox so he could play extra games. He then charged fellow teens $60 to $80 a pop to perform the same service on their consoles.

“I sat for like two weeks straight and watched YouTube videos and visited online forums to learn how to do that,” he says. “My thing was, if there was something I liked to do, I wanted to figure out a way to make money doing it.”

In simpler terms, it’s the American Dream: self-sufficiency and lifting yourself up by your bootstraps. You just don’t see kids who aren’t even old enough to shave become obsessed with it. To Amarikwa’s three sisters, it was just the way he was.

“That’s just Quincy being Quincy,” laughs Haley Amarikwa, who is six years Quincy’s junior but has gone on to become his business partner. “I really do think it has to do with the family dynamic. He was the oldest and the only boy. Growing up, he had a different spotlight on him, especially the way my dad knew things — he had to grow up and provide not just for his own family, but the whole Amarikwa bloodline.”

Through high school, Quincy assumed the best path to financial independence was to become a doctor, so he set a goal to go to college for a degree in biology. Turns out he wasn’t all that bad at soccer, either. He picked up the game while accompanying his dad to local rec leagues in Bakersfield’s immigrant community. He soon became a local standout, leading Kern County in scoring during his senior year at Liberty High School and excelling for a local club team.

But perhaps because of where he was from, he attracted little attention from colleges. UC Davis head coach Dwayne Shaffer discovered him almost by accident during a showcase in San Diego in 2005. Long after the dozens of college scouts had gone home late on a Saturday night, Shaffer was drawn to what he remembers as “a crazy intense playoff game” on a field where Amarikwa was dominating his peers.

“Within five minutes, I knew I had to have him,” recalls Shaffer. “I was shocked to find out nobody else was recruiting him.”

The next week, Amarikwa visited campus and committed to UC Davis. What struck Shaffer most is that, even at age 17, he wasn’t wired like his other recruits.

“You could just sense right away that he was a young man with a ton of confidence in himself and he knew exactly what he wanted out of life,” Shaffer says. “And because he was one of those kids who fell under the radar, he played with a chip on his shoulder.”

Becoming a pro soccer player wasn’t really on Amarikwa’s radar. But the scholarship money soccer afforded him would help him get his degree. In the meantime, he’d just have to make up the difference for his living expenses by hustling. Beginning his freshman year, he started buying countless items in bulk from Amazon or eBay — everything from clothing to textbooks to watches to bikes — and reselling them at a profit.

“There was no way I could look at my dad and tell him anything was too hard,” says Amarikwa. “My mantra is, ‘You figure it out.’ There’s always a way to do something.”

A way seemed to present itself: Amarikwa was better at soccer than perhaps even he realized. He scored 33 goals over four seasons at Davis, including a standout senior campaign in which he bagged a conference-leading 15 goals in 21 games and took the Aggies to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

That body of work was enough to convince the Earthquakes to select him in the third round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. When he made his professional debut off the bench in San Jose’s season-opening loss to New England, it was the first time Amarikwa had ever seen an MLS game.

“For me, pro soccer was never one of my end goals,” he says. “Originally, it was helping me pay for school. But then soccer became a viable option for my living and to fund my entrepreneurial endeavors because it gave me enough money – but more importantly, time and freedom – to pursue the different things I wanted to do.”

The only problem was that the breaks stopped going Amarikwa’s way. He settled easily into MLS, and won respect from his peers for his tireless work ethic. But he wasn’t finding the playing time that, by his calculations, would put him in the best position to improve significantly upon his rookie minimum contract.

The next four years saw him traded to Colorado (who eventually waived him), put on trial by the New York Red Bulls (who didn't sign him) and buried on the depth chart in Toronto, though he did see more minutes during the back half of 2012 than at any point in his young career. He was soon on the move again, landing in Chicago in the winter of 2013 and suffering through another season as a super sub.

He did score three goals that year for the Fire — all off the bench, all on the road and each within the final six minutes of the game — but it wasn’t enough to earn him a spot in then Chicago coach Frank Klopas’ starting lineup.

For the first time since he was drafted, it occurred to Amarikwa that perhaps his future wasn’t in soccer after all. So his perspective began to shift back toward his off-the-pitch endeavors. During his off-hours, he began hatching plans to start his first real business. Two, actually: an online soccer equipment and apparel company he named Perfect Soccer, and a marketing and brand consulting business he dubbed OBI Marketing Inc. (a play on his middle name).

Early in 2014, he began to sound a lot like a man who wasn’t getting what he wanted out of soccer, according to former Rapids teammate Drew Moor.

“We caught up while both our teams were in Tucson for preseason,” the veteran defender recalls. “He didn’t say he was going to quit, but he made it sound like he was almost ready to. You could tell he was discouraged, like he knew he could be done soon.”

Amarikwa made a decision to gamble on his greatest asset: himself. If he wasn’t going to be able to build his own brand through his play, and thereby fund his other endeavors, he was going to have to figure out his own way to grab the spotlight. So he had an idea.

Later that preseason, he called the Fire’s digital staff into the meal room at Tucson’s posh Westin La Paloma resort and pitched a concept: a weekly online show he would host that would feature vignettes, interviews, “challenges” posed by fans and mostly, as his sister might say, just Quincy being Quincy. He dubbed it “Quincy Time.”

“It was… interesting,” admits former Fire digital content manager Jeff Crandall. “We were a little skeptical. It was a funny concept, but the guy wasn’t starting and we didn’t know how it would work. Would people even pay attention?”

Amarikwa had a different take: He theorized he’d start getting more minutes since the Fire’s new coach was Frank Yallop, the man who drafted him and under whom, Amarikwa figured, he knew exactly how to earn time on the field. The club was still doubtful, but gave “Quincy Time” a try.

Sure enough, Amarikwa forced his way into the starting lineup in just the second game of the campaign after scoring off the bench in the season opener. He went on to have a career year, making 29 starts and scoring eight goals to go along with five assists.

Simultaneously, “Quincy Time” became a huge hit on the club’s website. Amarikwa’s unique sense of humor shone through and the near two dozen episodes of the show hauled in a few thousand views each. One week, Amarikwa would conduct a tongue-in-cheek interview with Magee (“You look a lot like Bradley Cooper — what are your thoughts on that?”), the next, he would accept a fan’s challenge to juggle an apple, orange and raw egg simultaneously. It was the perfect platform to show off his personality.

“MLS generally promotes the big names,” he explains. “If you’re not one of those big, marketable names, you’re not going to get that bump. I recognize that and I’m fine with that. So I’m going to take matters into my own hands. I’m going to start promoting my own brand and show there’s more value in me. If I can get that through a new contract, great. If not, I’m increasing my brand and thereby promoting my own business.”

Though he's struggled with a hamstring injury this year, Amarikwa is a key cog in the style of play Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear wants to see from his team. Wondolowski may be the primary scorer, but his job becomes easier with his 28-year-old bowling ball of a partner occupying defenders, holding the ball up and providing the occasional assist.   Photo via USA Today Sports Images

THESE DAYS, EVERYTHING SEEMS TO BE COMING UP QUINCY. He became surplus to requirements again when the Fire signed two Designated Players shortly before the 2015 season. But San Jose swung a deal with Chicago last June to bring the California native home again. And he hasn’t looked back since, implanting himself in the Earthquakes starting lineup.

In 17 starts after the trade, Amarikwa scored six goals and dished four assists to finish out the 2015 season. Perhaps just as importantly, he’s found a niche as an unlikely but perfect complement to Wondolowski. While the Quakes’ leading scorer relies on movement and finding space, the diminutive Amarikwa continues to hold up the ball and shuck defenders like a man twice his size.

“He’s become a little more refined, a little more technical,” says Wondolowski. “But he still has some of the most raw athleticism I’ve ever seen.”

Which brings us back to that goal three months ago. With the first half coming to a close, and with the Quakes nursing a 1-0 lead over the defending MLS Cup champion Timbers, Amarikwa pulled a little magic that left most of his peers stunned.

“He bodies off two guys, dribbles 40 yards and chips the goalie?” marvels Magee. “You see guys do incredible chips and incredible runs, you see guys using their strength. But to see all three in one play is really rare. … I would’ve doubted only his execution on the chip. But he’s been proving everyone wrong the whole way.”

You’d figure any longtime MLS player would savor a moment of brilliance like this as a seminal career achievement, a payoff for all the hard work. And to be sure, Amarikwa has. He celebrated the goal as if it were one of his finest and ate up the cheers from the home fans.

Once he left the stadium, it just became a means to an end: supporting the Quincy brand.

“I’m at the point in my career where I’m self-reflecting more,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who would say, ‘I’d love to be able to be in the position to do that.’ Not to take anything away from the energy and effort I put into that — while I’m required to be here, I’m working 100 percent, I’m doing what’s required of me and I’m doing what the coaches ask me. But the second I’m not here, I’m not spending any time thinking or focusing on MLS.”

His real career — or what he assumes will be his more permanent one — lies with his businesses. Today, Perfect Soccer is a robust online store selling everything from balls, cones and training equipment to The Perfect Soccer Player Blueprint, a book he co-wrote with former Colorado teammate Ross LaBauex that teaches aspiring players to, you guessed it, maximize their potential when they’re not necessarily the standout on the pitch.

Amarikwa projects the business will earn in the mid six-figures during calendar year 2016. It’s grown to the point that he pays Haley a part-time salary to run the day-to-day operations and employs a few consultants, including an accountant and a contractor in China who works directly with the suppliers and design teams.

In the meantime, he and fiancee Sirena Alice run the marketing side, which includes continuing to build out OBI Marketing as a consultancy for individuals or companies who want to cultivate their brands.

There’s more. Amarikwa has been studying up on real estate and, with Haley’s and Sirena’s guidance, plans to get into cosmetics and beauty ventures.

Within the next 10 years, he says, he hopes he’ll either have sold Perfect Soccer or transitioned himself to a non-managing partner. He foresees his real estate company owning “at least 1,000 residential properties and comparable to 5,000 units worth of commercial [properties].” He’ll also have launched two or three other brands in other consumer niches.

Ultimately, he says, he’d like to move the manufacturing aspect of the business to Nigeria, where much of his father’s family still resides.

“His dream,” says Haley, “is to make it all fall under the Amarikwa brand.”

And if all keeps going to plan, you’ll know just how to pronounce it.


THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's regular long-form series focusing on the biggest topics and most intriguing personalities in North American soccer.

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