Bakery Soumare doesn't believe thinking about worldly concerns beyond his world of soccer is anything unusual, even if few players in their early 20s are keenly aware of social issues.
Ask him to list his favorite players, and he'll name Patrick Vieira, while adding a contingency. "I don't know if you can say he's an African player because he plays for France," says Soumare, who was born in Bamako, Mali, grew up in Paris, and moved to New York as a teenager. "But I like him a lot."
Tops on his list is a Malian who was born in France, Fredric Kanoute, and not exclusively for the goals he has scored during a career at Lyon, West Ham, Tottenham, and current club Sevilla. Kanoute, a devout Muslim, serves several social causes, including children's rights.
"Kanoute would have to be the best of the bunch for me not just for what he does on the field but what he does off the field as well," says Soumare. "I try to use guys that like that as role models to help in those ways as much as possible."
To that end, Soumare talks frequently with teammate Diego Gutierrez, who has traveled to Mali and other countries during his work with Nothing But Nets, a charitable organization that provides mosquito netting to residents of African countries as part of efforts to cut down on the spread of malaria and other infectious diseases.
"It's something I'm really interested in getting involved in," says Soumare, who played one season at Virginia before Chicago selected him with the second overall pick in the 2007 SuperDraft. "I've been working with Diego a little bit with things like that. He's always in meetings and seminars and sending e-mails. He spends so, so much time and that's what people don't realize."
Soumare is also learning on the field from Gutierrez and other veteran Fire players. His steady, skillful play is a major reason why Chicago's defense was ranked amongst the league's best and keeper Jon Busch was contending for Goalkeeper of the Year honors.
"We're physical and we also have some technical ability to distribute," says Soumare, who usually plays in the middle with Colombian Wilman Conde. "But I think a lot of teams have players like that."
As a rookie, he played 19 games, most of them at defensive midfield. When Juan Carlos Osorio left to coach New York and longtime assistant coach Denis Hamlett, who had scouted Soumare in college, took over, Soumare moved back to central defender.
"Playing as a defensive midfielder last year really helped my distribution, my short- and long-passing game, being more comfortable on the ball," says Soumare. "You see the ball a lot and you have the ball at your feet a lot, so it helped me when I moved back to what I feel is my natural position."
He holds a green card and soon will have to make a decision in case Mali calls him up to its national team. He won't be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship for at least 18 months and since he turns 23 in November, once he plays a competitive international for one country or the other, he can't switch back.
For the present, he's focused on fine-tuning his skill, playing for one of the league's best teams, and pondering how best to utilize his humanitarian inclinations.
"We're not the NFL or NBA, but there's nothing more valuable than your time and the commitment you can make," says Soumare. "It shows that if you take the time and effort, you can make great, great things happen."
Hometown: New York, New York
2005-06: Univ. of Virginia
2007-08: Chicago Fire
(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)