KANSAS CITY, Kan. – This time last year, Birahim Diop was just another weekend warrior.
Out of professional soccer and playing on Sundays for FDR United in an amateur league in New York City, Diop was struggling to recover from an injury and uncertain about the state of his career.
"It was a tough thing to go back to amateur,” he said. “It's not easy."
He didn't take the easy road, but Diop has certainly has come a long way since then.
One year later, the Senegalese forward is back to being paid to play the game he loves. Signed by Kansas City after impressing at an invitation-only tryout prior to the start of the season, Diop is coming off one of the top performances of his career – and certainly his best in MLS – after struggling to stay healthy and finding playing time difficult to come by this season.
The 31-year-old journeyman scored twice against New England – his first career MLS goals – on Saturday to pace the Wizards to a 4-1 victory while filling in for suspended forward Teal Bunbury.
Prior to Saturday’s banner performance, Diop had made just four appearances for the Wizards since reuniting with assistant coach Octavio Zambrano, who managed him during previous stints with the New York MetroStars and in Moldova.
"This game brings me back on track,” he said. “It's been a long time to not play and have a tough time. This game gives me more confidence for the games coming up. I have a lot of motivation now."
To be sure, there have been some tough times this season when motivation wasn’t so easy to find.
After the Wizards signed the Senegalese jack-of-all-trades in March, Diop started his career in Kansas City well before tailing off considerably just a few months into the season. [inline_node:316644]
"He really took a big dip about May-June,” manager Peter Vermes said. “He was just rock bottom. He wasn't playing well and was out of from. We had a long talk, and he just started to build his game up."
But then a knee injury further derailed Diop’s progress. And about the time he had recovered from that, he suffered a concussion against Real Salt Lake that knocked him out for a few more weeks.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the person he sought out to celebrate with after opening the scoring against the Revolution was Wizards head trainer Chet North.
"He always motivates me after practice, telling me to keep working hard and my chance will come one day,” Diop said of North after the game. “That day was today."
It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for him or Kansas City.
Bogged down at the back of the pack of teams competing for a playoff spot, the Wizards faced a must-win situation against New England. Thanks to Diop, who also assisted on Kei Kamara’s goal, they got the points they needed while building valuable confidence before heading to Los Angeles this weekend.
After the game, his teammates showed their appreciation by hooting and hollering throughout Diop’s postgame interview, stopping only when their teammate’s smile was so wide that he couldn’t continue.
"He smiles too much,” Kamara said. “But he's happy. He's a happy guy. What he did for the team is great."