FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – A club’s best recruiters are often its own players, at least in the eyes of Jay Heaps.
The New England Revolution head coach identified center back Benjamin Angoua as a potential signing this past offseason, and in stepped center midfielder Xavier Kouassi. The Ivorians, who knew each other from time with their country’s youth national teams, connected on the phone, and Kouassi explained the club’s ins and outs.
Now, with the 2017 season underway, Kouassi and Angoua are primed for major roles in New England’s quest to return to the MLS Cup Playoffs. Angoua, acquired on loan from French Ligue 1 club EA Guingamp and signed using Targeted Allocation Money, has started all three of New England’s matches this year, while Kouassi, who signed a Designated Player deal with the club in 2016 but missed the season due to an ACL tear, made his first Revs appearance in the club’s second game of the year, a 2-1 loss at FC Dallas.
Together, they form two key pieces of the Revs' spine. They’re often found speaking in their native French, but it’s their off-field relationship that’s most vital.
“Off the field we’re like brothers,” Angoua said through a translator. “It’s as if we’d known each other for forever, for a long time.”
Said Kouassi, also through a translator: “When I got to the [Ivory Coast] juniors team, I got to know Ben and he was above me. … Then by the grace of God we find ourselves on the same team today. It’s all going very well, and everything is very harmonious on the field and off the field.”
Remi Roy, New England’s goalkeeper coach, also hailed their immediate bond, jokingly calling them “two clowns” who are key pieces in the locker room. The most important part about their relationship, though, Heaps said, is that each chose Major League Soccer as their next stop in the prime of their career.
Kouassi, prior to signing with New England, captained FC Sion of the Swiss Super League. Angoua, conversely, was a regular with a mid-table team in France’s top flight and represented the Ivory Coast in 2014 World Cup qualifying.
“It’s a new challenge for us,” Kouassi said. “The people in Europe talk about MLS, so we wanted to see what it’s about. I thank God we had the privilege to come and be with the Revolution. It let us come here and have this great relationship with the coach and the leaders. We saw what their playing style was and we agreed with that playing style.”
Angoua added a similar sentiment.
“It’s a good challenge and we wanted to see what another league was like. It was seven years that I’d been playing in France and I wanted to see what things were like elsewhere. I feel good with my teammates because they help me fit in easily. It was easy for me to fit in.”
The Ivorians share similar memories about their soccer beginnings – Kouassi recalled playing soccer in the street, and Angoua playing with his neighborhood friends. Now, united in New England, the charge is turning Kouassi’s recruiting efforts and their off-field relationship into on-field results,
“It’s critical that your DPs or your TAM signings impact the group and deliver every week and lead the group,” Heaps said. “I think they’re both in positions where they’re going to have to make plays defensively that keep us in games, that make us stronger in the attack, because they put out fires before they become problems. They’re key.”