This article appears in the August 3 gameday magazine. Click here to see the complete online edition.
It was the third week of preseason for the Dynamo, and with the club training in Southern California, head coach Dominic Kinnear made a trade to add depth to a team that reached the 2011 MLS Cup Final and would return its core. Kinnear acquired forward Macoumba Kandji from Colorado on Feb. 8, a move that didn’t generate much buzz at the time, but now appears to be a key ingredient to Houston’s seven-game unbeaten streak heading into Friday’s showdown with the New York Red Bulls.
“At that time of the preseason we needed another forward,” Kinnear said. “We watched him over the years and we’ve always been impressed with how he can change the game on his own. He is technically good on the ball, is a good athlete, and can be a force when moving forward.”
Kandji, a six-foot-four attacker from Senegal, had to wait for opportunities to play early this season, not starting a match until the seventh game of the season, at New York on May 9. He found his form as summer arrived, when he finally regained full strength in his left knee, after he famously tore his ACL setting up the game-winning goal for the Rapids in the 2010 MLS Cup Final.
The Dynamo shifted to a 4-3-3 formation for its June 30 meeting with Philadelphia, allowing a third forward to play up front. Kandji received the call as the third attacker, joining Dynamo leading scorer Will Bruin and new arrival Boniek Garcia. The Dynamo are unbeaten since the formation tweak, with a 5-0-2 record that has brought them from fifth place in the Eastern Conference to a tie for second, a point behind New York.
Kandji has started all seven games during the unbeaten run. He tallied an assist in the 2-1 win over Philadelphia that began the streak and recorded his first two-goal game since 2009 in a 3-0 win over Montreal on July 21 to cap a perfect three-win homestand.
“I think he has been confident and has been given a good run of games,” said Kinnear about Kandji’s recent form. “He always provides a moment or two in each half when he is either on the verge of setting up a goal or scoring a goal. He seems to be enjoying his position out there, wide left, and it has paid dividends for him.”
Kandji, who turned 27 on Thursday, was born in Senegal and moved to Gambia as a child when his mom immigrated to the United States and found a position in a hospital. Kandji moved in with his aunt and cousins and considers both of the bordering countries on the West African coast to be his home nation.
“We have family in both countries, so it was a very easy transition,” Kandji remembers. “When I was growing up in Senegal, I’d always go to Gambia for summer vacations. When I lived in Gambia, I’d take summer vacations to Senegal. “
Kandji played soccer in the streets of Gambia with his friends and cousins, who were like family to him.
“We are very close as a family,” Kandji said. “My cousins, I don’t call them my “cousins”, I call them my “brothers” and “sisters” because we all grew up together.”
Growing up, Kandji often fielded questions about his last name, which reminded many of a Senegal national team defender. The inquiries were accurate, as Macoumba’s father, Sharif Kandji, played for Senegal’s national team in the 1980s. One of Sharif’s teammates on the national team was Oumar Sene, the father of current New England Revolution striker Saer Sene.
Kandji moved to the United States at age 17 and attended high school in Charlotte, N.C. Next, Kandji played soccer at Georgia Military College, a junior college two hours southeast of Atlanta. Kandji would sign with the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League in 2007 and scored enough goals to attract the attention of the New York Red Bulls. After a loan in 2008, Kandji signed with New York before the 2009 season and had four goals and five assists in 23 games.
After his breakout season of 2009, Kandji scored just one goal in 29 games between 2010-11, a bittersweet span marred by the ACL injury but highlighted by the 2010 MLS Cup title with Colorado.
Kandji’s career revitalization hit its crescendo with his two-goal game against Montreal on July 21. After opening the scoring with a deflected goal in the seventh minute, Kandji delivered the signature moment of the perfect homestand with a breathtaking run from midfield for his second goal. Kandji covered an estimated 50 yards in just four touches – from the midfield line to the center of the Montreal box – as he beat three defenders before rocketing a shot into the roof of the net to seal the 3-0 win.
“I got the ball at midfield and I thought, ‘It is late in the game and my legs are dead right now, but I’m pretty sure their legs are gone too,’” Kandji said. “As soon as I got the ball, I knew I was going to go to goal.”
As teammates ran over to celebrate the goal with Kandji, he flashed his trademark smile, as wide as the border between Gambia and Senegal. The smile does not fade from his exterior, in good times or bad. The large grin is something you expect from Kandji, like his occasional variations of his braided hair. When asked what makes him smile so often, his answer is simple.
“Not everybody is blessed enough to have a job that is their hobby,” he said. “I just thank God for this opportunity. My parents give me a lot of love and that contributes to me being happy. When you have a supportive family and this beautiful job, a lot of people wish they were in your shoes. I’m not going to take it for granted. I’m going to take it with two hands and I’m going to smile as I go because life is fun.”