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United's Unpolished Diamond

Kuffour Is Turning Heads With His Raw Talent and Dazzling Shot-Making

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 1, 2005; Page E03

Ben Olsen called it "the best goal I've ever seen live in my entire life."

The impact of foot on ball was so violent, the sound could be heard from the second level of the nearly deserted stadium.


Ghanaian Nana Kuffour, 20, is perhaps the most physically gifted player on United's roster. "The talent is overwhelming," midfielder Ben Olsen said. (Jose Argueta For D.c. United)

When the shot crashed into the net, D.C. United players on the bench fell over each other in disbelief.

On May 14, during United's reserve game at New England, D.C. midfielder Nana Kuffour approached a skipping ball and smashed a left-footed shot from 38 yards -- the length of a basketball court plus another 20 feet.

It streaked past several dumbfounded players, beyond the reach of leaping goalkeeper Doug Warren and into the corner where the left post meets the crossbar.

All that exists of the astonishing goal is a grainy videotape and the memories of the other participants and a few dozen fans who had stuck around following the league game between the teams.

"Everybody on the team was asking me, 'Nana, how did you kick this ball?' " Kuffour recalled yesterday. "I score goals like this before, so it was not a surprise for me, but everybody on the team liked this goal."

Kuffour, 20, is perhaps the most physically gifted player on United's roster, a raw talent with thighs like pillars and, as demonstrated by the goal at Gillette Stadium a few weeks ago, a bedazzling shot.

Kuffour arrived from Ghana last year, introduced to United officials by businessman John Obeng, who frequently travels between his home in the Washington area and his native Ghana. Kuffour appeared in five games last season, starting one, but has been limited to reserve matches this year.

United's coaching staff is well aware of Kuffour's immense potential, but until he acquires a better understanding for the game, he'll have difficulty cracking United's deep midfield.

"I don't think Nana had a good day in the last reserve game," Coach Peter Nowak said. "He got a couple of good goals [for the reserves this year], that's true, and he was pretty sharp, but, this goes for everyone, we're looking very close for who will get a chance to play. Nana is one of them."

Kuffour was slow to adjust last year, in large part because of wide cultural differences. Unlike Ghana-born Freddy Adu, who has lived in the United States for eight years and quickly adapted to a new world, Kuffour came directly from a rural area in a central region of the West African country. English is his third language and he often had trouble understanding Nowak's instructions.

He's doing better this year, but still is finding his way in Nowak's disciplined system.

While Kuffour is trying to learn from his coaches and teammates, they are learning from him. United is a diverse group, with an Eastern European coach and veteran midfielder, two Latin American attacking players and several Washington area products. But Kuffour's arrival was culturally refreshing.

"He brings a lot of character to the locker room and, culturally, he has a very different upbringing than myself and most of the other guys," said defender Brandon Prideaux, from Renton, Wash. "He's very genuine but he's a bit of a character, too."

Besides his powerful shooting ability, Kuffour attracts attention with his outrageous clothing, ranging from a canary yellow suit to black leather pants highlighted by bright stitching down the legs.

Asked to describe Kuffour, midfielder Ben Olsen laughed and said: "Nana? How long you've got?

"Actually, he's starting to come into his own. Last year, he was feeling us out and we were feeling him out. Now, for sure, he's one of the clowns on the team. It's nice to have someone with a completely different background.

"He's such a unique player. He's not that structured of a player, but the talent is overwhelming. Sometimes he does too much, sometimes he doesn't know when to do the fancy stuff and when to play simple. Once he figures that out, he'll have a chance to play in this league."

Kuffour's best position is attacking midfielder, but with Christian Gomez and Freddy Adu well ahead of him on the development scale, Kuffour will have to be patient. "This year everything is different for me," he said. "I understand the system and the game plan and I know what the team is trying to do. If the coach wants me to play, I know I will be ready."

United Notes: In the first practice since Saturday's 2-0 loss to Dallas, Nowak put the team through a grueling workout. "It's not fun, no one likes it, we complain, but when you're done, it's a nice feeling that you got through it," Olsen said. . . .

United departed yesterday for the Colorado ranch owned by the team's investor, billionaire Phil Anschutz. The team will spend two days there before heading to San Jose for Saturday's match against the Earthquakes. . . . English midfielder Steve Guppy (Achilles' tendinitis) began running again but isn't ready to play.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company