Red Bulls bank on streetwise Tchani

[MLS] This season, Tony Tchani will be wearing the jersey of the New York Red Bulls. It will be one of the few uniforms the 20-year-old has ever worn. Before he came to the USA from Cameroon in 2006, Tchani played all his soccer on the streets of Bafang.

"Since I was little I would just play on the street with my friends," said 6-foot-4 Tchani, who went pro after helping Virginia win the NCAA Division I title in his sophomore season. "On the street there's no parents, no referees, no rules. You just play. I'd play with my friends. Usually four-on-four or three-on-three."

When his friends weren't around, he'd juggle or practice his shooting. On television, he'd watch his hero, the Frenchman Zinedine Zidane. From television he learned the rules of the game. Of American soccer he knew little.

"I knew about the U.S. national team," he said. "But not about the league."

He was too young to recall Cameroon's historic run to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. His first memories of the Indomitable Lions were from the 1994 World Cup.

"That was in the United States, right?" he says.

When he was 12 years old his mother left Bafang for the United States seeking political asylum. About four years later, Tchani, who was living with extended family, was able to join her in Maryland. After the joyful reunion he sought soccer and was at first distressed that there was no sign of it in the streets of his new neighborhood.

But his uncle knew Mohsin Bouziane, the coach of Maury High School in Norfolk, Va., to where he moved and quickly became the star of the Commodores.

"He learned how to play soccer with older guys," Bouziane told the The Virginian-Pilot. "He learned how to defend himself. He learned how to be tough. He learned how to survive in an environment like that."

After two years of high school ball, he accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Virginia. The central midfielder scored nine goals and made three assists during his freshman year before suffering a knee injury. He notched eight goals and four assists as the Cavaliers lifted last year's national title.

"Today is the best day of my life," Tchani said after being selected in the SuperDraft. "This is a dream come true." 

Asked what his strengths are, Tchani, with a Red Bulls scarf around his neck, said, size and speed. Asked what he needs to improve on to make it in the pros: "Everything. It's not going to be easy."

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