[INTERVIEW] The No. 1 draft pick in this year’s SuperDraft came to America from the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) after his father was killed in a 1997 civil war. Relocated to Oregon, where he rejoined his mother and three sisters, Danny Mwanga played two seasons of college ball at Oregon State and did enough that Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak took him right off the top. He’s the leading scorer among MLS rookies with seven goals and four assists.
SOCCER AMERICA: There’s always pressure on a No. 1 draft pick, but to be a teenager (19) playing up front for an expansion team is a tough assignment. How do you evaluate your adaptation to the pro game so far?
DANNY MWANGA: Obviously I’m very lucky because not many young players get a chance to come in their first year and get that time to play. I was lucky to fall under the hand of Peter, he’s a wonderful coach and he’s given me a lot of opportunity. I’m getting time to play and a lot of guys on the team are helping me out on the things I need to improve.
SA: Your father died tragically when you were very young. Who has given you guidance through your new life in America and into professional soccer?
MWANGA: First, I have to thank God because he took me here and I never thought I’d be here in my life. He is the one who made the path for me. Second is my family, my mom and my [three] sisters, they have been behind me and supporting me since I was little until now, and that’s a good thing.
SA: They are in Oregon and you’re clear across the country in Philadelphia. How often do you get to see them?
MWANGA: We travel a lot and it’s a long season so I don’t get to see them a lot. When we had two weeks off after the World Cup I went home. Other than that I talk to them, I talk to my mom and my sisters on the phone almost every night.
I don’t have any relatives or family in Philly except for my teammates.
SA: For a lot of reasons there’s great interest in any young forward who’s shown a knack for scoring goals in MLS and could play for the United States. Have you decided which country you will represent?
MWANGA: That’s a good question. I have been here for four years and my family is here so I consider the USA to be my home. But at the same time I was born in western Congo and that’s where I started playing soccer, so that will be a decision I will have to make. Right now I’m trying to focus on finishing the season and after that we’ll see what’s going to happen.
SA: You’re not an American citizen. What is your residency status?
MWANGA: I have a green card, so it’s in the process, but we’ll just have to see what happens.
SA: You are playing with a lot of experienced players, and attackers like Sebastien Le Toux and Alejandro Moreno. How are they helping you adapt to the pro game?
MWANGA: Even just playing on top of them during the game, they’re giving you hints and telling you what to do. Then just watching them during the game, how they move and handle pressure, how they handle the defenders, you watch that and you learn a lot as well.
When I came in I knew it was a different level and I just wanted to work hard and earn my way on the field. I just happen to be that way and I keep working harder and harder because there’s a lot of room for improvement.
SA: And does battling every day with a defender like Danny Califf, who has played for the U.S. national team and in Europe, educate you as well?
MWANGA: Definitely. Going against Danny in practice is like playing in a championship game. He goes in hard to make me stronger, because he knows that’s how the league is and what you have to do if you want to score goals.