Three continents in seven years. That was the decision Atlanta United Academy forward Lagos Kunga’s family made when it chose to move to Atlanta in 2006.
The academy’s U-18 team features three players who fled their native countries in Africa as refugees, escaping war and hardship before settling in Atlanta. Kunga, Machop Chol and Alhaji Tambadu each took a unique path to the club. Three Division I scholarships later, the players are proving good on the promise of more opportunity that originally drew their families to the States.
Kunga was born in Angola and then lived in Russia before coming to the U.S. at age seven.
“Russia was not a great place at the time,” Kunga said. “My family had lost hope. We had to get out to get better education and opportunities.”
Chol moved to Atlanta with his parents when he was two years old in 2000 to flee war-torn Sudan. Tambadu emigrated from Sierra Leone at age 12.
Academy Director Tony Annan and others who followed the Atlanta soccer scene knew about the players for years, yet no one had been able to lure them away from their local teams. The three starred for decent clubs but were hesitant to join the best clubs in the area when other coaches came recruiting, unwilling to leave familiarity for better competition. The narrative changed when Atlanta United founded its academy in summer 2016.
“They were with friends, people they trusted,” Annan said. “Their coaches were good guys who looked after them so you could never get them out of their community. Then when Atlanta United rolled in, their coaches contacted us and encouraged us to go after them.”
Once he heard that his adopted hometown was getting an MLS team and that Carlos Bocanegra was involved, Kunga said he knew the academy would be the best place for his development.
Since then, Annan has earned his trust and built a good relationship with the trio.
“We’ve shown what we can do to help them and better them,” Annan said. “They’re now way more open and they communicate way better with us now than when they came because I think there’s a trust between us now.”
Each brings a different skill set to the team but all three possess an unbelievable soccer IQ, according to Annan. Kunga is a dynamic player who does the unexpected, explosive and crafty with the ball. He’s committed to play for Furman University next season.
Chol, a versatile attacker who can play as a 10, or on either wing, signed with Wake Forest. He has great pace and a knack for taking on defenders. Annan believes his best position is playing on the left and added that “if he gets you one-on-one on the end line, you’re toast.”
Tambadu, a classic defensive midfielder, will play at Georgia Southern.
“Haji is an old-fashioned destroyer,” Annan said. “He’s tough, he sits in the middle of the park, will hit you as hard as anybody in a fair tackle and then he’ll pass. He’s a dying breed, a Claude Makelele type.”
The academy hopes to find more young guys like them in Atlanta.
“That’s what this program is all about,” Annan said. “It doesn’t cost them anything, it’s full support, full resourced. We have another couple in the pipeline that are looking promising, but we’d love to open the gate for more.”