From rural South Africa to Minneapolis: Bongi Hlongwane’s rapid rise to MLS

From rural South Africa to Minneapolis: Bongi Hlongwane's rapid rise to MLS thumbnail

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  • Leonard SolmsSpecial to ESPN

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      Jack of all sporting trades. Author of my 11-year-old self’s fantasy story about his road to FIFA World Cup glory. Writing about people who do what I promised to do.

Bongokuhle ‘Bongi’ Hlongwane is from a rural town in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, his first language is not English, he has almost no formal football education, yet he signed for Minnesota United in Major League Soccer by the age of 21.

Hlongwane, who has been called up to the South Africa team to face Guinea and France in two friendlies this month, really only started playing organised football at 18, and since then his rise has been meteoric, yanking him from one new situation to another with little warning.

The striker-slash-winger, who seems to have found a fan in Bafana Bafana’s Belgian coach Hugo Broos, has never really had a comfort zone when it comes to his soccer career, either positionally [his MLS profile says ‘Preferred position: Unknown’] or team-wise, and seems happy to go with the flow.

Hlongwane told ESPN: “I was playing everywhere [growing up]. I used to be a defender. Sometimes I would play as a winger, a midfielder, or as a striker. Sometimes I was a goalkeeper in tournaments we had back at home. “

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‘Bonanza’ made his first start, but fourth appearance, for the Loons in their 1-0 win over San Jose Earthquakes this month, playing on the left wing rather than up front. Former coaches found Hlongwane’s tendency to wander frustrating. However, Minnesota’s English boss Adrian Heath believes the exact opposite.

“He has absolutely explosive pace, but he also looks to combine and build with his teammates. We love his raw talents, but his football IQ is exceptional,” Heath was quoted as saying by Minnesota United’s website when Hlongwane signed in January.

But how Hlongwane, with just a couple of years of professional football under his belt, made it to MLS at such a young age at all, seemingly from nowhere, is an intriguing tale.

Hlongwane, who hails from rural KwaNxamalala, was an overlooked prodigy until his late teens. His family has no academies, no competitive school leagues and no proper coaches.

He explained that he and his teammates would be the coaches for their school teams: “We were in school — Team A and Team B — I was playing in Team A [First, or Varsity, team]. We would tell the other guys what to do for Team B.

“If it was our time to play, no-one was coaching us. It was just us. We didn’t have a coach at school. “

By the age of 13, Hlongwane was nevertheless playing in the fourth-tier SAB League on the weekends, with local amateur side Nxamalala Fast XI, inspired by his father who played for the same team.

Fast forward five years, South African Premiership club Maritzburg United fast-tracked him into the first team within a year after scouting him, but he faced challenges as he adapted to organised football.

After a strong start to first team football and a first, if surprising, South African national team appearance in 2019, Hlongwane was sent back down to Maritzburg’s reserves after Ernst Middendorp took over as head coach in November 2020.

New Frame reported that the no-nonsense former Arminia Bielefeld boss was unhappy with Hlongwane’s lack of positional discipline, and Hlongwane confirmed to ESPN that he was given a harsh dressing-down.

By his own admission, he is a better player for the experience. Hlongwane quickly made his way back to the first team, and was soon a key player in new Bafana Bafana coach Broos’ plans.

However, despite his noteworthy pace and still-raw talent, he has only scored twice in seven appearances since the Belgian mentor took charge, including against Ghana during 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

His exploits were enough to earn the attention of Minnesota United, where he has so far been embraced for the multidimensional player he is, rather than being asked to change.

“No-one is putting me under pressure. The coach [Heath] is happy with the way I play,” said Hlongwane, who scored eight goals in 57 appearances for Maritzburg and has none in four for Minnesota.

Hlongwane never expected to play in Major League Soccer, but when the opportunity, boosted by a recommendation from Broos, came he did not hesitate despite strong interest from major teams in South Africa — most notably former African champions Mamelodi Sundowns.

He said of the chance to yet again adapt to a new environment: “I thought that maybe I was going to play for a big team in South Africa, but it didn’t happen. Yeah [it was an easy decision to snub them for Minnesota].

“The [South African] teams that came to me… They were my opponents. Because I was born in South Africa, the only opportunity I had was for me to travel overseas. “

Hlongwane, whose first language is isiZulu, says he has been made to feel at home in Minnesota by his teammates, particularly Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla.

“What I miss most from home is food. I can’t cook so I eat take-out and other things. It’s quite different from home. He said that he misses his family, but America is a great place.

Hlongwane will be back amongst familiar faces over the international break. South Africa are gearing up for international friendlies against Guinea (March 25) and France (March 29). Hlongwane is excited to face the world champions after his disappointment in missing out on World Cup qualification.

“In the Ghana match [the 1-0 defeat that saw South Africa eliminated], we did everything, but it wasn’t our day… We need to be focused on the following games. We’re preparing for the AFCON 2023 qualifiers,” Hlongwane said.

“I’m excited [to play France] because I’ll be playing against the big, well-known players. “

The Stade Pierre-Mauroy, where Bafana Bafana will take on Les Bleus, is as far removed from KwaNxamalala as can be. Hlongwane’s hard work and determination instilled in his a fearless spirit. He is now living a dream that seemed impossible just a few years back, but he will continue to jump in head first.

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