During 2016 preseason, a bright eyed and bushy tailed Amass Amankona did not need to look up at the sky to see the stars.
He would scan around the training pitch at Real Salt Lake and see the likes of Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Juan Manuel Martínez, Yura Movsisyan, and other big names in American soccer.
The Ghanaian was a third-round SuperDraft pick by the Major League Soccer franchise on January 19 and ran out in claret and cobalt for the first time 11 days later in a friendly game against San Diego State Aztecs, followed by further scrimmages against Club Tijuana and Columbus Crew.
To assist his development, Amankona was handed the opportunity get further game time in the USL Championship with Real Monarchs. He became a star in his own right and established himself as a key player, recording 26 appearances and a delightful stoppage-time volley that secured victory over Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in June.
It was perfect timing for his first professional goal but Amankona had been no stranger to the final third prior to 2016, topping the charts in the Atlantic 10 (A-10) on shots, goals, and points while enjoying his last year at college with Dayton Flyers.
He backed up that stellar season with a summer at Charlotte Eagles in the Premier Development League (PDL) — which is now USL League Two — his dedication to soccer paying dividends when he touched down in Utah the following winter.
“Sharing the pitch with the big guys was a very good experience for me and it changed my perspective of playing,” said the 25-year-old.
“They had been at the highest level for a while, so you could see the way they do things and learn from that to better yourself as a player.
“It is every player’s dream to make that jump from PDL to getting drafted, but sometimes players forget that the dream doesn’t end there — you need to showcase your talent.
“When you get to the professional level, everything evens out because you think you’re doing well, but other guys are doing extra so it’s up to you how you push yourself.
“Everything comes from working hard, being humble, showing discipline, and making the most of the opportunity that you get.”
Amankona’s journey to professional soccer kickstarted at the University of Ghana in Accra, where he was offered a scholarship at the University of Dayton and then became close friends on and off the field with Lalas Abubakar, who now plays for Colorado Rapids.
With a wife and a new-born boy, Amankona now has his own life in the US — but he never takes for granted the people who raised him in the city of Kumasi.
“My mom was behind my playing because my dad — may his soul rest in peace — knew that I had a talent but wanted me to focus on education. I understand that now, because in Ghana, you either choose soccer or choose education.
“He was worried that I would only go on to the soccer world and then if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have anything to lean back on.
“But my mom urged me to try and take both seriously because if I gave everything and left nothing behind, it might end up helping me. That’s what kept me going and she was right.
“If I didn’t take my studies seriously I wouldn’t have got to the University of Ghana, where I saw how to take my classes well while continuing to play at a high level, which helped me get the grades to move to the University of Dayton.
“So I always play for her and my family back in Ghana, but also for my wife and my boy because he’s going to grow up and see what I did as a father, and the glory of God because he gave me the talent to play.”
The balance between soccer and studying is something all aspiring players will have to negotiate in order to be successful. It’s the same for several of the players who will join Amankona on South Bend Lions’ USL League Two roster this summer.
Although Amankona’s own college days are behind him, the former A-10 MVP has no plans to take his foot off the gas when it comes to proving himself.
“In the locker room, I’m not a vocal leader but my actions speak louder than words. Nobody has ever questioned my work ethic and I will do what I can to help the club with my actions.
“I always make sure that I leave everything on the field and that’s what every professional player and every young player has to do. You never know when you will finish playing, but you just take it as a blessing to be able to give all you have.
“If you push yourself in practice, then you are pushing the other players and the team gets better — you could score 20 goals but if the team is not doing well then it doesn’t matter.
“As a team we have to give the fans something to cheer for. When they come to the field, they leave knowing that every player left everything out there regardless of results, and that is where we need to be.
“There will be a great atmosphere at our games, and we are going to make some noise.”
In the five years since being drafted, Amankona has also spent time with Dayton Dutch Lions and Indy Eleven, and will represent South Bend after a positive 2019 season in the pro-game with USL League One’s Richmond Kickers.
“When I visited South Bend, I had a whole itinerary from Thiago [Pinto]. It was surprising to see a USL League Two team having that setup — being well planned and acting according to it.
“That really hit me, because it tells me how serious this organization is and what it wants to achieve. I’m excited and I’ve been preaching about it to my friends and other players.
“The city is growing, the people are very welcoming, and I felt a sense of belonging. Kids are getting involved in soccer and the passion to support the team, that I’ve seen at all my former clubs, is here in South Bend too.
“If you have the fans behind you and you see the club as your own, then wherever you go you’re not just part of a group of people in a locker room, but part of a community — a family.
“This is a huge opportunity, especially being a new franchise, and my main goal is to make a good name for the club and put it to a level where everyone from the front office to fans can feel uplifted.
“I want to be a part of a club that fits my vision, and I wouldn’t have committed to this if I didn’t see any progression or realistic goals. This has everything that a player wants.”
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