By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
Bakary Soumare joined his University of Virginia men's soccer teammates aboard a charter jet this week for a two-hour flight to St. Louis and the NCAA College Cup, the culmination of a season that has brought the Cavaliers to the brink of their first national championship in a dozen years.
For Soumare, a 6-foot-4 freshman defender, it is the zenith of a journey that began along the banks of the Niger River in West Africa and continued in the gritty northern suburbs of Paris. It took him to an overcrowded dwelling in New York and, through the generosity of a Park Avenue executive, to the tony Upper East Side.
And finally it took him to Charlottesville, where, after sitting out the 2005 season because of a broken foot, he has used his physical presence and intrinsic ball skills to augment Virginia's back line and begin attracting attention from scouts and agents here and abroad.
"It's remarkable," said James Kelly, president of the Third Point investment management firm in Manhattan and Soumare's foster father. "Once he was given a chance in life, he took off."
Soumare (pronounced Soo-MAR-ee) was born in Mali, an impoverished African nation of 11.7 million that is landlocked by seven neighboring countries. When he was 3, his family moved to France, which, until 1960, held colonial rule over Mali. Like many Malians, Soumare's family left behind a bleak homeland for opportunity near Paris.
They settled in Saint-Denis, an immigrant haven in the shadows of Stade de France, the country's national soccer stadium and site of the 1998 World Cup final.
"The stadium was basically across the street from where we lived," said Soumare, who grew up idolizing French national team midfielder Patrick Vieira, also a lanky, 6-4 player with African roots.
What happened to him about six years ago remains sketchy.
Soumare said he went to New York to play in a tournament and ended up staying. A Virginia teammate said Soumare told him he went to live with an uncle. Virginia Coach George Gelnovatch believes he came to the United States with an older sister, Aminata, who went on to play basketball at the University of California.
The first time Kelly met him as part of a program assisting underprivileged children, Soumare had family issues and was "living in a desperate situation. When we found him, he was failing everything" in school.
Soumare, who turned 21 three weeks ago, did not want to elaborate about his initial days in the United States, saying, "It's a very long story."
As the local chairman of Communities In Schools, an Alexandria-based organization with branches in 27 states, Kelly took an interest in Soumare.
"He's a special kid," he said. "As soon as we recognized his capability, he took it and ran with it. All you had to do was give him a safe place to live and a safe place to go to school, and that was it."
Kelly did more than find him a safe place to live -- he invited him to move into his home on the east side of Manhattan and join his wife, Marie, and three children of similar age. The Kellys soon became Soumare's foster family.
"I call them Mom and Dad," said Soumare, who has a green card for permanent residence and plans to pursue U.S. citizenship.
Soumare's biological parents returned to Mali from France, he said, and he plans to visit them in the capital city of Bamako during winter break.
"That was one of the best things to ever happen to me," Soumare said of meeting the Kellys. "Actually, it was the best thing to happen to me. It turned my life around."
Soumare was enrolled at La Salle Academy, a Catholic school in the East Village. He excelled in the classroom and played soccer for both the school and the Red Storm Arrows, a club team run by St. John's Coach Dave Masur.
"We didn't know much about him -- he just started showing up," Masur said. "He had a real maturity, a seriousness, a mental toughness."
Said Gelnovatch: "When you have a guy like that -- he's a pretty imposing figure -- word gets out. We knew right away he could play."
After choosing Virginia over St. John's as well as several other ACC schools, Soumare broke his left foot the spring of his senior year at La Salle and had surgery. During preseason workouts, however, the pain returned, and he had to undergo another operation.
A medical redshirt allowed him to retain all four years of eligibility and, following more surgery and six months of rest and rehabilitation, Soumare was ready for the 2006 season.
Soumare has played in 20 of 21 games and made 19 starts for the fourth-seeded Cavaliers (17-3-1), the only absence stemming from a red card. He is set to start again tonight when Virginia faces eighth-seeded UCLA in the first semifinal at snowy Hermann Stadium on the Saint Louis University campus.
"He obviously has all the physical attributes, and he's got the soccer skills as well," said senior goalkeeper Ryan Burke, who shared an apartment with Soumare in New York last summer. "His feet are outstanding."
Soumare is fluent in English, but his French skills have had advantages and disadvantages on the field. Burke and midfielder Ian Holder, both of whom speak French, would communicate with Soumare in his native language, confusing opposing players. During one game, though, it was a Virginia teammate who got confused. "We had to stop," Burke said, laughing. "If we lose a game because we're not communicating with everyone, that's bad."
Gelnovatch believes Soumare has a promising future but needs additional seasoning.
"When you look at him, you think of a prototypical star center back, but I think it's a little premature" for him to consider turning pro, Gelnovatch said. "For a big guy he's got some decent feet. Potentially he could be very good, but he's still a little raw. He's got a lot to learn."
In Soumare's eyes, the learning process began six years ago.
"There are a lot of opportunities here," he said, mentioning an interest in foreign affairs and politics. "I want to do well in school and with soccer. I've done pretty well, but there are a lot of things I want to achieve."