HANOVER, N.J. — Just shy of his ninth birthday, Omar Sowe moved from Gambia to the United States with his brothers.
His parents had already set up shop in New York, but a friend tipped them off to a place across the Hudson River where the rent was a bit more affordable, where there’s mass transit into Manhattan, where soccer is engrained into the neighborhood’s fabric.
That town is Harrison, N.J.
Fast forward and Sowe, 19, has signed a professional contract with the New York Red Bulls — a USL Championship deal with Red Bulls II — as the first Harrison kid to do so since Red Bull Arena was erected there.
“It means a lot to me and the town and they always supported me no matter what, ever since day one,” Sowe told MLSsoccer.com. “I fell in love with the town and soccer and everything in the community, just the people are amazing. And it feels really, really good to be able to show that Harrison is still up there.”
When Sowe arrived in 2009, Red Bull Arena was still under construction. Playing soccer was his life in Gambia, so watching what would become one of America’s soccer-specific cathedrals rise gave Sowe a stronger connection to his new home.
“I saw it being built and how it all started,” he said.
Sowe remembers his first match, watching Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill. His family didn’t have the financial means to go to every home game, but sometimes with the assistance of Michael Dolaghan, a Harrison city councilman, they’d go to a few matches each season.
“That'd be like one of the best days whenever my dad came home and was like, 'We got tickets,'” Sowe said. “We had fun going and watching.”
As a freshman at Harrison High School, Sowe first stepped on the Red Bull Arena field for the school’s annual clash with neighboring rival Kearny, a town that boasts US men's national team legends like Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and John Harkes.
“It was great. We went in the locker rooms, saw everything, played on the field, obviously,” Sowe said. “It was a good atmosphere. It wasn't obviously packed, but it felt good playing there.”
Paul O’Donnell, a Red Bulls Academy coach, grew up in Kearny was quite familiar with the Sowe family. Omar’s older brother, Modou, who was the New Jersey State Player of the Year in 2013, was brought in a few years ago, but didn't latch on.
Omar then came to the Academy three years ago, and O’Donnell was told he was a defender. But Sowe struggled. The same was true the next year when he played in a more advanced position up the field.
Following the high school season last fall, O’Donnell said the decision was made to bring Omar back one more time.
“Wow, this kid has grown up, his confidence level, everything has changed,” O’Donnell said. “He’s a bit more of a man, he’s more confident.”
“I feel like with them and the atmosphere, I feel safe, and I feel like I'm not scared,” Sowe said. “I try to get out of my comfort zone a lot. They try to encourage you to do that, which is good because it opens up your confidence and playing with them it helps out a lot, especially over time.”
Will Sowe be the next Homegrown to make the climb through the club’s pyramid? Only time will tell. But if that moment comes and Sowe plays at Red Bull Arena for an MLS game, he’ll be taking his whole town with him.
“For me, it's all I really have, giving back to the town [and] just showing that Harrison is on the map,” Sowe said. “That’s just one thing that I always wanted to do.”