A few years ago, University of the District of Columbia men's soccer coach Osman Orlando would struggle to fill his roster during tryouts. Later in the season, he would see fit-looking UDC students wearing soccer apparel clustered on the sidelines during games. They usually were laughing at his team, which did not win many games.
Recently, however, that insulting trend has changed. Two years ago, Orlando began to land players who were willing to recruit other players within the school. Last season UDC was 9-9, avoiding a losing record for the second time in the program's 20-year history and the first time in Orlando's eight seasons as coach.
This season the Firebirds were off to their best start ever at 5-0, scoring 18 goals and allowing two, before losing yesterday at East Stroudsburg (Pa.), 2-1, in overtime. This fall Orlando actually had to make cuts.
"There used to be a basic lack of interest and respect in the program," said Orlando, who has a career record of 60-82-5. "Some people did not even know we had a team and others just heard we were bad, so they stayed away. Some good things started happening and the word got around."
UDC's soccer team doesn't play in a conference, so the Firebirds are aiming to win enough games to attract the attention of the NCAA Division II tournament selection committee. An at-large bid would put them in the four-team South Region tournament, whose winner goes to the Division II quarterfinals.
All 20 players on UDC's roster were born and raised outside the United States; most of them are from Africa. A list of the players' home countries includes Cameroon, Gambia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. One player each hails from Brazil, El Salvador, England and Morocco. Just two players attended Washington area high schools.
Sophomore forward Laurent Marchal moved to the United States in 1996 from Burkina Faso in west Africa to pursue an education in the construction industry. His cousins, Moussa and Laurent Seck, followed him to the Washington area about six months later.
All three play soccer, but Moussa Seck, a defensive midfielder, suffered a knee injury in preseason and Laurent Seck, a forward, had not taken the SAT and therefore was ineligible.
Two other freshmen, Ibrahim Adamou of Niger and Jephiter Okumu of Kenya, also had trouble gaining clearance to play in 1998 and missed all but the last quarter of the season. Marchal was hindered by quadriceps and hamstring injuries and scored just one goal in 1998.
This season all five players are eligible, healthy and in the starting lineup. Marchal and Laurent Seck have four goals apiece.
"As a striker, scoring only one goal last season was a failure," Marchal said. "I want to make up for that this year. I have to play for my school to show other people what UDC can do. This year is the first time people really want to play for the team."
Senior midfielder Mohamed Kamara, a co-captain along with Adamou, saw the UDC athletic department shut down and reopen in the past two years. Kamara is amazed at the new attitude on the men's soccer team.
"In past years, the first things guys wanted to know was how much scholarship money they were going to get," Kamara said. "When they found out the answer was none, they didn't want any part of it. They were just in it for the money. Now we have guys who have already paid their way through school for a year or two and just love to play."
As the soccer team gathered in the lobby of the school's field house to put on their gear before practice last week, Ernest Holmes, a senior guard and captain on the UDC men's basketball team, spotted them. He shouted, "Soccer team!" and pumped his fist as he walked by.
"We don't get fans here, so at least the other athletes try to support the teams," Holmes said. "Especially when a team does well, like the soccer team is right now, it motivates all of us. They've had some rough times, but this year they're pretty good."