SHARON HILL >> Lansana Doumbouya’s first high school soccer practice wasn’t exactly the harbinger of success to come. There was one big and somewhat unavoidable problem: The ball.
Doumbouya, born in Conakry, Guinea, and new to Academy Park as a sophomore, could undoubtedly play soccer. But he’d grown up on the futsal courts of West Africa, playing the small-sided, skill-focused game hosted indoors or out, with smaller goals, freestyle positioning and … a smaller ball.
“The first time ever playing here, I remember people laughing at me because the ball was too heavy for my foot,” Doumbouya recalled this week. “That was my first time playing with a bigger ball. In Africa, we played with a little ball. So I used to get yelled at when I gave bad passes.”
Once Doumbouya got acclimated to the ball, coach Dan Schultz knew he was a player to keep. A consequence of the futsal of his youth was an intensive course in soccer, the likes of which many high-priced American academies are now scrambling to reproduce. His upbringing afforded orders of magnitude more touches on the ball than American counterparts, thousands and thousands of chances to polish one-on-one skills in close quarters and cultivate creativity and decision-making. It wasn’t until Doumbouya came to the States — after stints with family in Senegal and Sierra Leone before returning to Guinea, then joining his father in the U.S. — that he played his first 11-v-11 game on a full pitch.
Once grafted onto the larger playing surface, those attributes often proved unstoppable. In his senior season, Doumbouya led Academy Park with 33 goals and 12 assists, helping bring home the Knights’ first Del Val League title and a berth in the District 1 Class 4A tournament.
For those accomplishments, Doumbouya is the 2017 Daily Times Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
Joining him on the first team are the Penn Wood trio of Goodwill Agbaadem, Carlos D’Anjolell and Andrew Nmah; Episcopal Academy’s Johnny Cunningham and Harrison Malone; Strath Haven’s Josh Mason and Nate Perrins; Garnet Valley midfielder Andrew Weir; Haverford School midfielder Parker Gravina; Radnor forward Ryan Peter and Haverford High’s Cam Morse.
Nmah is the only returnee from 2016, yet the group is once again senior laden, accounting for all but three spots (which go to juniors Perrins, Malone and Morse). Weir, Doumbouya, Cunningham and Peter were second-teamers last year. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with local coaches.
Doumbouya’s futsal past attuned him to learning on the fly and made his idea of traditional soccer positions a recent construct. So when it came to figuring out where he’d fit at AP, the conversation was both muddled and largely inconsequential to Doumbouya, using his older cousin Abraham Kromah as his soccer translator as a sophomore.
“My first year, I wanted to play striker,” Doumbouya said. “But I never had a position in soccer because futsal has no positions. But when I came here, my coach said, ‘Lansana, what position do you play?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ At that time, I didn’t understand his English. So I asked (Kromah), ‘what did he say?,’ and he translated it into my language and I said, ‘I play midfield.’ … Anytime I came in, I scored, so I started building confidence, so he played me more.”
In the scope of adjustments, this year’s paled in comparison. When AP started winless in four games and Schultz sought to shake things up, he tapped Doumbouya to step up from midfield — where he starred as a junior with nine goals and nine assists — to the forward line.
The results were instantaneous, a streak of eight straight wins in which Doumbouya scored 19 goals; he contributed 23 goals in a 10-game unbeaten run that included a win and a draw against Penn Wood, AP’s nearest Del Val rival. He posted hat tricks against Interboro and Upper Darby (both 3-1 wins), then hit four past Interboro, as well as all four in a 4-2 win over Christian Academy.
Against Penn Wood, Doumbouya provided a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win the first time around, then assisted in a 2-2 draw to lock up at least a share of the title. He was a constant threat in the District 1 Class 4A playoff game, a 2-0 loss to eventual state qualifier Kennett.
Doumbouya’s soccer history runs deep. The youngest of three siblings (his older sisters, Mamum and Fatim, also attend college in the U.S.), Lansana took to the sport at age five. The most popular sport of his homeland, soccer was everywhere around him, and he couldn’t help but catch on.
“We used to always buy soccer balls for him as toys when he was younger,” Lansana’s father, Karamo, said. “He used to play in the living room, and his mom would get upset. But I would encourage him. I would say, ‘if he breaks anything, I’ll pay for it,’ because I wanted him to play.”
Father and son bonded over soccer games on television, the usual stock of European exports like the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Doumbouya recalls in particular the 2005 UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Milan, the Miracle of Istanbul.
“When I was young, he always used to watch soccer videos and the games, and I used to hate it,” Lansana admitted. “I used to like watching cartoons and stuff. But one day I started loving it and I was like, you know this is fun.”
“The whole household would get mad at us because when the game was on, no one else could watch TV,” Karamo said. “And no one could watch anything until the game was done.”
That passion has translated not just into the American novelty of scholastic soccer but also with Junior Lone Star, where Doumbouya plays on the Under-19 team. That experience and his comfort within the diverse squad at AP have helped advance his game.
“You’ve got people that know where you’re from and they know when you come here, in America you have bigger opportunities,” he said of Lone Star. “And when you come here, everyone works hard to make something of yourself. It’s comfortable to be with them because you know you’re doing the same thing and you’re from the same place.”
Doumbouya is still mulling his future. He hopes to play in college, and while he has the on-field skills, he’s still relatively early in the process of sounding out schools. Whatever lies ahead, though, he’s sure it will involve a soccer ball, of a now familiar size.