LOS ANGELES – In a league that seems more stocked every week by young talent, worth watching, from every corner of the world, how much of a surprise is it that a 28-year-old Oslo-born former Stabaek striker has captured a great deal of Major League Soccer’s recent attention?
No, the player in question is not the LA Galaxy’s winter signing — three-year MLS veteran Ola Kamara — but his countryman Adama Diomande, a relative unknown when he made his MLS debut for LAFC a mere seven weeks ago.
Dio’s performances ever since have sent stat crunchers across the league slamming digits into calculators, desperate to find a numerical explanation for his stunning start.
The start is remarkable – nine goals in seven league appearances – but what has contributed to getting Diomande to the place he's in right now?
“That’s my neighborhood,” Dio said proudly, when asked about the sequence he has worn on his shin guards during matches.
It was in this working-class section of Oslo that young Dio — whose parents came to Norway from Paris after leaving their homeland of Ivory Coast — grew up amongst other immigrant families from places as divergent as Nigeria and Cuba, Gambia and Pakistan, India and the USA, as well as a number of South American countries.
“You learn from them, their culture, how they act,” he said of growing up in this kind of environment. Dio further explained life in the 1251 in an excellent interview with LAFC’s Gevrina Catalina for YouTube TV.
“When we were young, we just played in a small area of the pitch, eight against eight, seven against seven, six against six, we were always pushing each other and fighting.”
Like most immigrant neighborhoods the world over, Dio doesn’t shy away from calling his sliver of Oslo “rough,” and he didn’t survive his childhood there with football alone. His father brought his precious djembes — traditional West African drums — with him to Norway and music played a major role in his upbringing, especially once his older brother introduced him to other styles.
“I grew up with hip-hop,” Dio said. “Where I’m from, everyone listened to hip-hop.”
His dad didn’t mind the hip-hop beats filling the house as the boys grew up, though he’d lobby for Michael Jackson when he could. As he delved deeper in the genre, Dio remembers one artist standing out, not just for him, but for the entire neighborhood.
“My whole community, we grew up with Tupac [Shakur],” he said, adding that his favorite record by the late rap legend was double-album "All Eyez On Me."
That Dio is now able to blast Pac out of his speakers during his commute from his home in Pasadena to LAFC training and matches at Banc of California stadium is only one of several reasons the striker is loving life in Los Angeles off the field as much as on it.
“My family is very happy here,” says Dio, whose wife gave birth to the couple’s second child not long after the move from Hull City. “That’s very positive for me to not worry about.”
That mood swing has been a major one. During his three years in the England’s northeast, the Diomande family struggled as much to find happiness off the field as the player did on it — something he points out matters a lot more than footballers sometimes let on.
“I feel like if you don’t have fun outside the field, you don’t get it on the field too,” Dio said. “You think too much. I don’t want to say it’s a weakness but if I don’t have fun outside of football, then I will be depressed all the time.”
The weather in Hull, and the city itself, didn’t really jive with Diomande the way the Los Angeles sun and international vibe has — even if his exploration of the city has been limited in the wake of work and the joy of a newborn baby.
“I enjoy it every time I see the weather,” he said. “I’m always smiling when I wake up. You see the sun, of course you're smiling.”
The last time he felt this good about life off the field was when he still played near the comforts of home at Stabaek — where he was under Bob Bradley’s tutelage — scoring and creating goals for fun, just as he is now.
While the reunion with Bradley both drew him to LAFC and has helped him find his form since he’s arrived, what the striker appreciates most about the coach is the relationship the two share, essentially an extension of the straightforward, hard-working values he grew up with in the 1251.
“He’s just honest,” Dio said of Bradley, someone he’s spent the weeks since arriving in MLS complimenting. “I’ve been with a lot of managers but he’s just honest to everyone. If you’re not good enough or don’t do the right thing, he says it straight in your face. He’s not going around you and [talking about it]. He’s just straightforward and I’m a straightforward guy too. If I don’t feel something is right, I’m telling you straight in your face. It’s not about being scared, it’s about showing respect.”
Dio speaks about Bradley the way he does about his friends from growing up, a circle he still maintains. In fact, it was with two of those same friends — a Moroccan and a Somalian — that Dio first visited L.A. several years ago, having no idea then that he would one day return to play.
“I grew up with everything from USA,” Dio explained. “I always watched American TV, 'Fresh Prince,' and Martin Lawrence. I’m very into comedy.”
Despite that, he shrugs off the implication that this love of American culture drew him to MLS or that it was a predetermined destination.
“I just felt it was the right moment,” he said. “Best city in the USA, I think. Why not try it? I had other options but coming here with Bob, just feeling like linking up with him again was a nice idea so why not?”
Despite the lulls he’s had in his career in Belarusian and English leagues, Dio is a man of faith and was confident that when the right opportunity came, he could capitalize — not that he’s letting any of the early success get to his head.
“I’m a Muslim and I always pray five times a day,” he says. “My religion always teaches me to be humble. I don’t care if you’re rich, poor, don’t have anything. You always have to treat everyone the same and I always want to give back to the community.”
Being so new to Los Angeles, that local community currently mostly consists of his home and his locker room.
“I’ve been with a lot of different teammates and I feel this locker room is one of the best I’ve been in since I left Stabaek, when I was with Bob too,” he said, giving credit to his coach for filling it with the right kind of players. “He knows the people he’s bringing in too. You have to be a good guy too, it’s not only with your feet.”
To that end, the striker hopes to help guide his teammates off the pitch as well as on it.
“I’m one of the oldest people [in the locker room],” Dio said. “I want them to develop and teach them things they haven’t been through yet and I’m just happy to show my bright side and positive side of me and help them to grow.”
So, to keep the numbers straight, the man from the 1251, bumping an album from 1996, has supporters in LAFC’s 3252 going crazy in 2018.
“Right now, I just feel great. I’m 28. I’m in my prime now and I just make the best out of things when I am here.”