In the third of our series of interviews with Dynamo award winners, HoustonDynamo.com caught up with 2013‘s top defender.
Kofi Sarkodie claimed an accolade with the 2013 season less than three months old. And by the end of the year, he had another three: a hat trick of honors at the Dynamo Awards that reflected his commitment and consistency during a season that saw him definitively make the leap from exciting prospect to dependable ever-present.
Well, almost ever-present: the 22-year-old did miss one game out of the 39 MLS regular and postseason fixtures played by the Dynamo. Yellow-card accumulation meant he was suspended for the win over the Philadelphia Union in July.
But he started all the others and was substituted only twice. Not surprisingly, no other outfield player logged more regular-season minutes than Sarkodie, which earned him the team's Ironman award. And that combination of reliability and endurance saw him grab the Defender of the Year prize, too.
Not a bad season's work for the 2011 SuperDraft selection from the University of Akron, who had to wait his turn for most of his first two years with the Dynamo but broke into the team in the closing stages of the 2012 campaign and has not looked back.
"I'm very grateful for being acknowledged for those awards, there's a lot of other guys that have great talent. I'm just really grateful and blessed and I just hope that I can continue to have success and continue to put in the work in 2014," Sarkodie said. "It was nice to see the work that I put in throughout the year paid off. A lot of that is credit to a lot of the guys around me.
"People think that when you're a starter it's easy but there's a lot of different pressures that come into that role, and a lot of different things you have to deal with. You have to make sure that every week you're ready to go. It's a different mentality and you look around the locker room and see what other guys are doing, how they're taking care of their bodies, and you start to understand what Dom and his staff wants."
Sarkodie had to make the physical and mental adjustments needed of a player going from up-and-coming prospect to integral part of the first XI. That meant managing his body so he could play so often without suffering burn-out or injury, and coping with the challenges created by added expectations and responsibility.
"That's the environment [head coach Dominic Kinnear] creates, he wants guys to feel week-in, week-out that they're fighting for their spot. And that's good, that's what professional sports are about because you want to be pushed to get better," he said. "I was proud of being able to make sure I was available game-in, game-out and also maintaining a level of performance, not letting the level drop."
Asked for his most memorable moments of last season, Sarkodie mentions the astonishing extra-time victory over the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And, of course, the play that won him an improbable award in May: MLS Save of the Week, no gloves required.
Stationed on the goal line for a corner kick during Houston's 4-0 win away to D.C. United, Sarkodie's double denial of Dwayne DeRosario showcased the defender's sharp instincts and athleticism.
"That was neat. Looking back it was crazy, just reaction," he said. "The ball came through, the way the ball was coming down was a bit weird so I had to basically use my knees. I didn't know how to push the ball, I saw it pop back [towards DeRosario on the rebound]. In my head I was thinking, DeRo's getting ready to volley it into the net, I'd better get up and over. I was like 'get up, get up, move!' And fortunately I was able to slide across in time and block the shot."
The moment was named Play of the Year at the Dynamo Awards. And it was not an isolated incident. Sarkodie had also been nominated for MLS Save of the Week just a couple of weeks before the D.C. match for his header denying Danny Mwanga of the Colorado Rapids a certain goal.
While the bare statistics depict Sarkodie as steady and solid, he is far more than that. He has the tools to start attacks as well as stop them. He loves to get forward along the right wing and one of his main targets for this year is to improve on his 2013 tally of four regular season assists and another in the playoffs.
"That's one of the areas I want to get better in. I want to have more possession for the team on the wings this year. That's one thing I'm going to be really, really focused on," he said. "Four assists on the year, I think it's good. I think I have more room to improve in that area, there's more balls I could play in that can be goals, that's one area I'm very adamant about."
Knowing when to advance up the field is partly a matter of judgment that comes with experience, partly about confidence that comes from teamwork. Given the raft of team changes forced on Kinnear in 2013 by injuries and international call-ups, Sarkodie hopes for a long run of games with Boniek García, the regular right-winger, which will enhance their relationship and lead to even more chances being created.
"I said to him, 'Boney, you're always gone, man!' Hopefully we can get some rhythm going before he leaves for the World Cup and we'll be ready to go when he's back," said Sarkodie.
As for Sarkodie's own international prospects, it's natural that he has begun to garner some United States buzz as a regular starter for one of the best teams in MLS. But he is giving the Dynamo his full attention.
"People have been asking me about that but you can't really focus on that, you never know when that opportunity's going to come," he said. "My focus is on Houston. I want to win a championship, that's my goal, my focus, to contribute as much as I can for the team in 2014 and put us in the best possible situation to win.
"We're right there—if you look over the past three years, we're right there. We just need to push along and if the national team comes up within that, that's excellent, that's the highest level. You never know … you've got to keep your head down, work hard for your club and let the rest pan out as it will."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.