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A road less traveled – Nkosi Tafari navigates life and career

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Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.

Drake

That’s more than just some throwaway line from Drake’s high school graduation. The Canadian superstar’s journey has a clear influence from his mother. From dropping out of high school to support her during a period of illness; to appreciating the importance of education thanks to Sandi, a teacher by trade; and earning his diploma at the age of 25.

One’s journey in many ways shapes the destination. It may be a teenager making the decision to help bring in more money from acting gigs, the exposure of which helps them become one of the biggest names in music.

It has certainly been the case for this Englishman who’d never considered even visiting Texas until a couple of weeks before moving to Dallas.

More to the point, it’s entirely true of professional athletes navigating their way through their careers.

Last year I wrote about how some FC Dallas players had taken advantage of others’ adversity to find the right course.

On one hand, we saw Bryan Reynolds go from back up to a lucrative move to AS Roma. On the other, two of Reynolds’ now-former teammates were left out in the cold as the COVID-19 pandemic ripped up the plan for the 2020 season.

Nkosi Tafari and Eddie Munjoma found themselves in a tough position last year. Both players were with the first team but not making the game-day roster.

Plus, due to Covid restriction, players could no longer come and go as they pleased between the FC Dallas and North Texas SC individual bubbles. While Thomas Roberts and Edwin Cerrillo had the vital antibodies that were a free pass between MLS and USL, the two rookies – Tafari and Munjoma – had not contracted the virus, leaving Luchi Gonzalez with a tough question to answer.

Were these two players too important to lose from first-team training and how much would it harm their development?

“I think there is a little bit of that juggle,” said Ryan Hollingshead. “We’re trying to have a solid second lineup to push the first team lineup in practice, and that’s definitely crucial. And that’s an important part of those second-team players too in their development, getting games and in the way that they push us by playing and competing at the highest level that they can so that in practice they’re pushing everybody as much as they can push them.”

Tafari and Munjoma did finally spend time with North Texas SC towards the end of the USL League One season, providing valuable playing time and giving both the opportunity to impress in competitive play.

North Texas’ Nkosi Burgess, left, and Forward Madison’s Wojciech Wojcik battle for position in the first half Wednesday night in Wauwatosa. (JUSTIN NUOFFER, FORWARD MADISON FC)

“Looking back in hindsight, I kind of probably would have preferred it could have happened almost sooner,” Tafari told me at the end of the 2020 season. “So I could have played more games with them.”

“Just because of COVID and everything that happened. We had the [Orlando] bubble, we came back and I didn’t have any antibodies,” Tafari continued. “So I can’t really go back and forth. There’s a couple of games where injuries occurred so I ended up making the bench just for extra numbers for the 20 man roster.”

“But looking back on it I wish I could have played more games [with North Texas SC] because it was a really good experience.”

As the 2021 season is now far from ‘new’, both Tafari and Munjoma have pushed on to not only make benches for FC Dallas but to start.

Reynolds’ move pushed Munjoma into the discussion for the starting job, with the former SMU Mustang appearing in six of the first seven games before falling out of favor.

UCONN Husky-turn-Seattle Redhawk Tafari, the 14th overall pick in the 2020 SuperDraft, made his way past Callum Montgomery, making the Canadian surplus to requirements ahead of his trade to Minnesota United.

Then, with Matt Hedges injured and Bressan unavailable, Tafari made his Major League Soccer debut against Minnesota United, impressing with his raw athleticism and eye for a pass out of the backline.

Looking Back

Buzz spoke to Johnny Nelson earlier this year about the experience of being drafted and discovering where one’s professional career would begin.

That discovery was a surprise to Tafari, who had to adjust quickly in the whirlwind period immediately after draft day.

“The draft was on the ninth, and then shortly after it – maybe like a week after – they wanted to fly me out on the 17th,” said Tafari. “I remember Fredy [Herrera, Data Analyst & Video Coordinator] our video guy, he sent me some clips. Just like how the team plays and builds out because I wasn’t expecting to get drafted here.”

“It came as a surprise to me. I was talking to my agent and different things, but I hadn’t been in contact with FC Dallas. So I didn’t know much about the club or the history.”

A fast adaptation is crucial for draftees, finding their footing at a new level, adapting to a new style surrounded by new faces, and with roster cuts only a couple of weeks away.

Where Montgomery and Nelson had to adapt their individual styles towards that of Luchi Gonzalez, Tafari was already more of a ball-playing defender that fits the bill of Gonzalez’s signature style.

IMG_0556FC Dallas SuperDraft pick Nkosi Burgess plays a pass during the opening practice of the 2020 FC Dallas preseason (Dan Crooke)

Even still, coming to Dallas was not without its challenges which became apparent on the very first day of preseason. As the small group of media gathered to speak to new and returning players, Tafari cut a dejected figure walking off the practice field after struggling with the speed of play.

Throughout the pandemic, Coach Gonzalez revised small targets in seeking to control only what can be controlled and told as much to his young player. Setting goals by the day as Tafari and his teammates settled into a soon to be eventful 2020 season, Tafari rapidly showed strong play on both sides of the ball, a solid read on the game, great pace and aerial presence, and comfort on the ball to earn a contract by mid-February.

A midweek sidetrack from FC Dallas – the SheBelieves Cup – took place in Frisco the day before FC Dallas was due to travel to New York City for a weekend game with NYCFC. In the press box and stands alike, news came down of Rudy Gobert’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the immediate postponement of the NBA season. Major League Soccer would follow suit the next day.

“When COVID first hit, they told us that we couldn’t be in the locker room,” said Tafari. “Then we started doing individual training just on our own.”

For Nkosi, a nearby movie theater proved useful. “They had pretty big walls. I was just doing some training, setting up cones, and kicking the ball off the wall. The kind of things that I was doing to prepare myself for my final year before going to Seattle.”

“But it’s definitely tough training on your own. It’s hard to compete. You can always work hard, but you can’t really compete with anyone else.”

It took over seven months – including an infamous stint in Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament – for Tafari to experience that competition again in a 3-0 victory for North Texas SC over Inter Miami’s USL-1 side, as he explained.

“The last game I played was in February in Chula Vista for a full 90 minutes. You fast forward it all the way towards October and I’ve just been doing separate quarantine training or just regular training. We knew the small-sided for 10-15 minutes, or like three games five minutes each, is not [like a game]. There’s nothing to translate the game as much as the full 90 minutes of the game does.”

As well as playing under Luchi Gonzalez and Eric Quill, two of the Dallas staff – tenuously linked to Brazilian great Ronaldinho – greatly impacted Tafari in that difficult time.

Former Venezuelan international Jose “Chuy” Vera has labeled his call up to the 1999 Copa America as the greatest moment of his playing career. The Tournament started with then-recent World Cup runners-up Brazil. Vera started and subbed off shortly before his counterpart in the 21-jersey announced himself to the world with a goal in a 7-0 win.

Vera joined FC Dallas in 2017 as Director of International Scouting, combining that with assisting several age groups for both the FC Dallas Academy and Youth clubs. More recently Vera was head coach of the U-19 academy side and now is one of Luchi’s trusted assistants.

Vera – Profe Chuy as he’s better known to the players – has been tasked with establishing development plans for the young players on the fringes of the first team. Arguably the most experienced coach with the club after managing for five seasons in Venezuela, Tafari cited the former midfielder as helping improve his weaker left foot and heading ability.

Ronaldinho’s path to Europe and the 2002 World Cup began with that aforementioned tournament against Vera, earning a move to Paris St. Germain the following year where he passed Peter Luccin on the Frenchman’s way to Celta Vigo. The pair would share numerous contests in La Liga long before Luccin’s playing spell with FC Dallas.

Embed from Getty Images

After retiring, the Marseilles-born midfielder Luccin began coaching in the FCD Academy, bringing through the hotly anticipated ’05 age group from its pre-academy U-12 season before being named one of Gonzalez’s assistants upon the former Academy Director’s appointment as FCD’s MLS head coach in December 2018.

A member of the golden age of French youth that would produce the nation’s first World Cup, Peter Luccin is, in some ways, a defensive coordinator for FC Dallas.

Known as a tough-tackling player who caught the attention of most referees in Spain, Luccin’s reputation doesn’t interfere with his open-door policy for players he’s mentoring. He and Tafari talk through game clips and situations with Luccin’s respect for his former crosstown rival in Madrid, Sergio Ramos, shining through.

What’s in a name?

The rise of services like Ancestry.com and its DNA testing service has allowed so many people to see where their path began, discovering roots in other parts of the nation or indeed other nations entirely. Some of those paths meet a dead end, because of war or other blots on mankind.

Tafari – who has both Liberian and Jamaican heritage – felt part of his own name – Nkosi Tafari Burgess – didn’t fit.

The name Burgess hails from Old French, a far cry from the names Nkosi – King in the Nguni languages of southern Africa – or Tafari – the Amharic birth name meaning “One who inspires awe” of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, a central figure in Rastafari ideology.

The link between the Burgess name and slavery wasn’t new to Tafari, with his parents emphasizing the meaning in his given names while the surname lacked meaning.

“My mom was definitely very meaningful,” explained Tafari. “I wonder how long she took to choose the names, but I’m sure she took her very sweet time in figuring out what she would have wanted. She always made sure I knew the meaning of my name as well. I definitely see where she’s coming from.”

Part of the journey for some professional athletes is to establish their platform or brand and to positively make use of that. Nkosi Tafari’s decision to drop the Burgess name is part of a savvy, yet transparent, brand.

“I’ve never actually worn my last name on a jersey. I mostly played college soccer… high school soccer and in college, you’re not allowed to really brand yourself in any way. It was never a name on the back of a jersey but now it has come to this.”

Tafari went on to describe the Burgess name aptly as something that had happened rather than a part of him.

A young man, fashion-forward and often seen wearing clothing sporting positive messages proudly displaying elements of black culture. Someone who uses social media platforms to encourage people to exercise their right to vote without a political agenda attached, and the natural choice to speak first in FC Dallas’ video marking Juneteenth. A leader in discussions that feel like they should have been left in another century, but have become all too necessary in the current social climate.

On the field

I recently asked Luchi Gonzalez about Nkosi Tafari adapting to starting in MLS, and the FCD Head Coach raised a parallel to Matt Hedges’ early days at FC Dallas.

In a position that rarely substitutes for any substantial minutes, Hedges sat patiently waiting for his chance in his 2012 rookie season behind Ugo Ihemelu, George John, and Hernan Pertuz. It would take Ihemelu sustaining a career-ending concussion, George John missing a couple of games, and Pertuz being forced to cover for Zach Loyd at right back for Hedges to get a run in the team.

Similarly, Tafari’s run began alongside Jose Martinez when Bressan was barely off a flight from Brazil obtaining his permanent residency in the United States. Martinez would then pick up a knock. Hedges, in a cruel twist of fate, suffered a seemingly chronic injury that turned out to be a fracture of the hip. All of which opened the door to Tafari maintaining the starting job.

While others’ adversities can present opportunities, making the most of those opportunities is still down to the individual.

A success rate of 93.8% for passes under 30 yards. Only two misplaced passes under 15 yards; giving him the highest completion percentage of any American outfield player in MLS at 97.6%. A league-leading 6.7 clearances per game after making an astonishing 16 clearances against Sporting Kansas City. The numbers paint a picture of a successful run of games; as can the eye test which is telling a story of growth, increased comfort with the ball, and impeccable timing in defensive actions.

“[Nkosi’s] not super clear, still showing rawness and mistakes,” said Gonzalez this past week. “He’s certainly raising his level mentally to rise to the game, not feeling too much pressure, just knowing that he’s got the tools and he can do it. I see him taking these gradual steps and improving each game, improving each moment, improving each week in training. He knows that he’s still nowhere near his potential.”

With Matt Hedges returning off the bench to help close out the win in Kansas City, Tafari’s run of nine starts and a starring role in back-to-back wins has given Luchi Gonzalez a lot to consider in his upcoming team selections.

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