MLS mourns death of former KC defender Okafor

Nigerian international regarded for warm laugh, crunching tackles

Major League Soccer lost one of its originals on Thursday as officials found the body of former Kansas City Wizards defender Uche Okafor dead in his Dallas-area home. He was 43.

Okafor was part of the Kansas City roster that debuted in 1996 and he played with the team until 2000, appearing in 119 regular season games and another seven in the postseason. He was part of the Kansas City team that won the MLS Cup in 2000, logging 16 minutes as a substitute in the championship game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., that year.

“It’s shocking and very sad,” said former Kansas City coach Bob Gansler, who coached the team during the 2000 championship season. “One would not have thought that such a tragedy would involve Uche. We are less one outstanding individual today, that’s for sure.”

A physical, 6-foot-3 defender from Nigeria, Okafor started all 30 games during Kansas City’s inaugural season in 1996 and appeared in at least 14 games each season he was in the league. He also appeared in all four of the team’s postseason games during the 1996 season.

"He was very influential for us," said Diego Gutierrez, the current Philadelphia Union head of scouting and player development and a teammate of Okafor's in Kansas City in 1996 and 1997. "We had a good, good defensive line, and it was led by Uche. With his experience and his international pedigree, he was the rock for us. Hearing of his passing is a tremendous blow, because he wasn't just a good soccer player, he was a tremendous person. He was always upbeat."

"He would laugh and smile with everybody. He had one of the all-time great laughs in MLS history," said Alexi Lalas, who played on the back line with Okafor during the 1999 season in Kansas City. "But behind that laugh, there was this incredibly tenacious beast of a defender. You didn't want to be on the end of a Uche Okafor tackle, I can tell you that.

"It was a real honor to know him and to play along side him," Lalas added.

Okafor was also a regular for the Nigerian national team during the 1990s, when the Super Eagles arrived on the international scene as one of Africa’s rising powers. He played a vital starting role on the 1994 team that won the Africa Cup of Nations, but he later suffered an ankle injury and was an unused substitute for Nigeria’s run to the Round of 16 at the World Cup that summer in the United States.

He was back on the roster for the 1998 World Cup in France and started the Super Eagles’ group stage loss to Paraguay. The team won the group but eventually fell to Denmark in the Round of 16.

“He was a gentleman of extraordinary proportions, and I really enjoyed
my short time with him,” Gansler said. “I had nothing but the utmost
respect for him as a player and as even more so as a person. I called
him ‘The Prince,’ and when his young daughter came around to practice,
she was always ‘The Princess.’ This whole thing is bewildering.”

After his retirement, Okafor was a correspondent specializing on African soccer for ESPNsoccernet’s PressPass, as well as a youth coach for the Associated Soccer Group, a member of the North Texas Soccer Association.

Okafor’s body was found in his home in Little Elm, Texas, a town roughly 35 miles north of Dallas. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office said Okafor's body would be examined Friday.