The dusty, rock-strewn field where Mike Potempa first spotted Philip Mayaka’s talent is a striking sight for audiences accustomed to the manicured pitches of MLS and other professional leagues.
Worn, hard-packed ground. Stones, the occasional shard of glass or metal debris. And not a blade of grass to speak of, for what Mayaka calls “slum soccer.” But it was just a part of his normal childhood routine in Nairobi and its outskirts – and a means to an end.
“People see them like dust fields, but to us, we see them like a bridge – a bridge to cross to another level,” the 21-year-old Kenyan told MLSsoccer.com this week, a couple of days before the Colorado Rapids made him the No. 3 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft 2021 presented by adidas.
“Because we don’t have any other resources to use, especially if you’re from the slums … those fields, it was like a bridge to where I am today.”
Potempa is the general manager and co-founder of the Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy (SIMA), a pro-style academy attached to the private school outside Orlando, Florida, with a growing reputation for churning out future sports stars like Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell and Ben Simmons. While Montverde might be better-known among NBA circles at present, its soccer operation is well on its way to similar status under Potempa’s leadership.
Current MLSers Andre Shinyashiki, Mohamed Traore and Benji Michel are SIMA products, along with a litany of other pros scattered across North American soccer and around the world, as well as seven members of the 2021 SuperDraft field. Many are overseas imports – and many were first scouted in their home countries by Potempa, himself a standout in his own playing days who was drafted by the LA Galaxy in 2001 before injuries put paid to his dreams of stardom.
With a large chunk of its student body housed in residential facilities on-site, Montverde can offer an immersive experience with few equals in the United States, preparing its kids for careers in sports and beyond.
“My mission is to provide education to help these kids prepare for life as all too often, football is the only focus due to families in the developing world in poverty and needing money and food to survive,” Potempa told MLSsoccer.com. “I have working relationships with people in countries all over the world who believe with me that education is the most important,” including former Liverpool and Senegal midfielder Salif Diao.
“So I travel all over the world and scout talented young men to bring to SIMA to give them the next level of their development on the field – and most importantly, an education, to include learning English, graduating from Montverde Academy and taking the next step.”
Potempa brought Mayaka and two of his teammates to SIMA, a massive opportunity but one fraught with complications, starting with the simple reality of eating.
“It was my first time boarding a plane. And the first time I came to the US, I wasn’t familiar to the food around here,” explained Mayaka, the second-youngest of nine children back home. “I used to eat only rice, because that’s what is in Kenya.”
So the adolescent newcomer basically trained himself to eat all over again, sampling the array of options in front of him at the school’s dining hall.
“I kind of forced myself to eat the food, just trying anything. If I didn’t like it, I’d just get a bite, and tomorrow I’d try again, because that was the only food that was being provided,” he said. “I wanted to try the U.S. food because I knew I was going to be here for so long.”
He’s proven himself right in that regard. After graduating from Montverde, he moved on to Clemson, where he continued to blossom under respected coach Mike Noonan, who has groomed a long list of future pros like Robbie Robinson, Andrew Tarbell and Amadou Dia.
“He’s been wonderful to coach the last couple years,” said Noonan of Mayaka. “We’re excited for the opportunity he’s about to have. I think he’s as MLS-ready as pretty much any player that we’ve had. He’s versatile, he can play a number of different positions. He’s durable and covers more ground than probably any midfielder I’ve coached in my career.”
Mayaka earned a Generation adidas contract offer after his freshman campaign in 2019, but elected to stick around another year to complete more coursework – fulfilling a pledge to Potempa and his parents back home – and further hone his game.
“This is the type of kid he is. He’s true to what he says, and very honest, very humble,” said Noonan. “And when the time was right this year, he’s able to fulfill his dream, but he’s also got the opportunity now, like many of our players who will play pro, to come back someday and get their degree.”
A rangy, versatile midfielder with excellent work rate and technique alike, Mayaka has drawn comparisons to Latif Blessing and Darlington Nagbe, the latter of whom also happens to be his favorite MLS player. Those who’ve worked with him believe he’s ready to contribute to the Rapids’ first team right away, and the incredible journey he’s made just to reach this point has prepared him well for the challenges ahead.
“In this country right now, the buzzword is the ‘pathway to the pros, pathway to the pros.’ These kids understand that education is a pathway for their lives,” said Noonan of Mayaka and his like. “They have talent, they’re humble, they’re willing to work really, really hard to make their families proud and to create a pathway.
“[Colorado] are going to be really happy, because he’s really coachable, he’s talented. He’s going to get better over the next two or three years, there’s no question about that.”