D.C.'s Khumalo Makes Name for Himself

Thabiso Khumalo, right, was acquired on loan by United last week to fortify a roster hit by injuries. "He knows how to play the game," United General Manager Dave Kasper said.
Thabiso Khumalo, right, was acquired on loan by United last week to fortify a roster hit by injuries. "He knows how to play the game," United General Manager Dave Kasper said. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

At each destination, from the Roman Catholic prep school in Kentucky to the two southern colleges, from the three lower-tier pro soccer clubs to MLS, Thabiso Khumalo has had to answer the same pressing question:

What's up with your nickname?

"Everyone asks, but I don't have an explanation for it," said the 27-year-old South African forward known as "Boyzzz" -- pronounced "Boy-zee."

"The other kids started calling me that when I was little. It just happened. I like it because it stands out. When someone says that name, they know who they are talking about it. If someone says 'Thabiso,' no one knows what that means."

By any name, Khumalo is beginning to forge an identity for himself in his seventh setting since leaving South Africa at age 14. Acquired on loan by D.C. United last week to fortify a roster devastated by injuries, Khumalo started the first two matches and very likely will be back in the lineup for tonight's game at Los Angeles.

"He was a good fit right away," said United General Manager Dave Kasper, who used his connections with the third-division Pittsburgh Riverhounds, his former employer and Khumalo's previous club, to arrange a tryout. "He knows how to play the game."

In his debut against FC Dallas last weekend, Khumalo started at forward and assisted on Jaime Moreno's first-half goal. On Wednesday, he lined up on the right side of midfield and played 90 minutes against Costa Rican club Saprissa in the Champions League opener. With United's injury crisis, which now includes Moreno's knee, Khumalo might be back on the front line tonight.

Khumalo's story begins in Soweto, the historic collection of townships southwest of Johannesburg. His father worked in security, his mother at a garment factory. While rugby was the sport of choice among whites in the country, soccer was the passion of black South Africans. Khumalo played in the streets of Mzimhlophe, one of nearly three dozen districts in the sprawling, largely impoverished area.

"I play soccer in the streets without boots," he said. "Before school, we play soccer. At lunchtime, we play soccer. After school, play soccer. Then I would go to practice. That's all I did. It was a tough area, but I was just focused on soccer, soccer, soccer. It was bad, but I didn't see it or think about it. I just played."

His turning point came when he was selected for a youth team invited to play in a tournament in Louisville. During the stay, he was offered an opportunity to live with a host family and attend private school. He returned to Soweto to confer with his parents, who, after much discussion, gave him their blessing.

Khumalo spent four years at 300-student Bethlehem High School in Bardstown, Ky., 45 minutes from Louisville. "In the beginning, it was very difficult," he said. "Where I come from in South Africa, I was surrounded by black people. In Kentucky, my host parents were white and almost everyone in the school was white."

While his cultural adjustment took time, Khumalo excelled on the soccer field and, in one season, had 51 goals. After graduation, he played two seasons at Lindsey Wilson College in southern Kentucky, where he scored 47 goals in 47 games over two years and was the first freshman in NAIA history to be named player of the year. Khumalo transferred to Coastal Carolina, a Division I program in Conway, S.C., and became one of the nation's assists leaders.

In 2005, he was drafted in the third round by the Chicago Fire, but then spent two years with the second-division Charleston Battery and third-tier Wilmington Hammerheads. Discouraged by his career path, he returned to South Africa in 2007 and was in the process of pursuing local opportunities when Jason Kutney, a former teammate at Charleston and now the youth development director for Pittsburgh, asked if he would be interested in playing for the Riverhounds.

Khumalo returned, and contributed six goals and three assists for a team that had a 4-10-6 record this summer and finished eighth among 10 clubs in USL2, two levels below MLS. Through Kasper's contacts, United brought him to Washington for a closer look.

"Sometimes guys like Boyzzz, who are playing one or two leagues below [MLS], when you surround them with better players, they show better," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "He was someone who was in that case."

Khumalo is under contract with Pittsburgh for another season, which means that, if United wants to retain him, the club will have to purchase his rights. D.C. did just that a few years ago when it acquired Clyde Simms, now a starting midfielder, from then second-division Richmond. Judging from Khumalo's immediate contribution, United might do it again.

"I always thought I could play in this league, but it took some time to show it," he said. "Now that I am here, I feel I can help this team. This season definitely, and maybe in the future."

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