New England Revolution head coach Steve Nicol has already gained a reputation as the master of the Major League Soccer draft, snapping up unheralded college players and turning them into solid performers.
This season, though, Nicol and his coaching staff went a step further by introducing two unknown youngsters from a far away continent to boost New England's start to the campaign.
Gambian youngsters Abdoulie "Kenny" Mansally and Sainey Nyassi suffered a series of problems – including visa issues, lost baggage and a huge difference in weather from west Africa to New England – after they were snapped up in the offseason. Their impact on the Revs has been immediate, helping the team rack up impressive victories over the two-time MLS champion Houston Dynamo and in-form Kansas City Wizards on the road.
"You expect there to be a period of settling in when lads come over to a different environment," assistant coach Paul Mariner said. "But these two have hit the ground running and done very well straight away.
"They have got the right attitude and they are a pleasure to work with because we know we can help to develop their games to a new level."
Nicol and Mariner went to watch Gambia play Portugal in the Under-20 World Cup in Canada last year and liked what they saw, with Mansally scoring the winning goal. Nyassi also came to their attention, and the New England hierarchy decided that signing the two would be beneficial, both in terms of strengthening their squad and providing them with familiar company.
Many questioned whether the Revs could cope without departees such as Pat Noonan, Avery John and Andy Dorman this season. The losses have been eased by the immediate impact of the African newcomers. Last week, Nyassi narrowly lost to David Beckham in the voting for MLS player of the week, and both Nyassi and Mansally scored in the first half of Wednesday's 3-1 win over the Wizards.
New England fans are already getting excited about what the season holds in store.
"There is more to come from us," promised Nyassi, who, like Mansally, turned 19 in January. "We are still getting used to MLS, but it is good so far."
The Gambians offer an extra dimension to the Revolution's attacking play, but they know that developing defensive skills to match their remarkable turn of speed is a must.
"We can get better in some areas and that is one of them," Mansally said. "It is nice to have helped the team do well, but it is also about developing as players as much as we can."
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their story is the way Nyassi and Mansally have adapted so easily to a brand new way of life. They live with a host family, but since there are precious few Gambians in the Boston area, they have been unable to mix with any of their fellow countrymen.
Both admit to missing their native food, especially during the months they spent living in a basic motel while awaiting visa clearance. However, homesickness does not seem to pose any problem at this point.
They're almost certainly helped by the way the Revolution's senior players have made great efforts to integrate their new colleagues into the "family."
Back home in Gambia, the achievements of Nyassi and Mansally are already getting serious attention. Family members, friends and Gambian soccer fans are able to watch some games on television and the internet and have been thrilled with the results.
"We get calls all the time from people in Gambia," Nyassi said. "They are following the games and talking about the results. It is a great feeling for us to make them proud."
- New England