He was hoping for a phone call. A letter in the mail. A text message.
In mid-December, Major League Soccer unveiled a list of 55 college seniors selected to the 2015 MLS Player Combine. Amadou Dia wasn’t invited.
The 21-year-old, who had just graduated from Clemson University and returned home to the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, began to wonder if he even had a future in MLS.
Dia’s four-year Clemson career had ended a few weeks earlier. As a senior, he helped lead the Tigers to their first ACC Tournament title in 13 years and an appearance in the NCAA tournament. The MLS combine in January was a chance to show his strengths to the coaching staffs from all 20 teams.
That chance was gone.
“With people thinking I wasn’t good enough for the MLS Combine, it made it easy to think I wasn’t going to get drafted,” Dia would say three months later, donning a Sporting blue training jersey at Swope Soccer Village.
Three months ago, Dia—his coaches and teammates call him “T”—simply hoped to make an MLS roster.
On March 8, in front of 20,000 fans and a national television audience, he became the first Sporting Kansas City rookie since 2011 to start in MLS Week 1. He intercepted passes, launched forward on the attack and defended Bradley Wright-Phillips one-on-one. Naturally a left back, he was deployed on the right.
He earned another start Saturday at FC Dallas, recording six clearances and 10 interceptions.
“He has got some cojones,” Vermes said of Dia after the season-opening 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls. “He can step out there and he can play at this level for sure.”
Few MLS coaches would have agreed with such an assertion heading into the SuperDraft. Dia wasn’t on any experts’ mock drafts, he never received all-conference recognition, and his slight build—listed at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds—didn’t turn any heads.
“At that point, I was just wanting to make a team,” Dia said. “That was my only focus.”
Ultimately, all Dia needed was for one club to recognize his qualities and take a risk. After doing a little homework and heeding some advice, Sporting Kansas City did just that.
Before taking his playing career to Kansas City in 2000, Vermes spent three seasons with the Colorado Rapids and became friends with fellow defender Chris Martinez. The two have stayed in touch ever since, often conversing during the weeks leading up to the MLS SuperDraft. Now a player development director at the prestigious Real Colorado youth academy, Martinez alerts Vermes to any pro prospects he has coached.
Martinez coached Dia at Real Colorado throughout high school and remained his mentor when he left for college. After Dia graduated from Clemson with a sociology degree in December, he returned home and began a strict training regimen at Sterling’s Team Speed, a facility that specializes in youth athletic development. He also reconnected with Martinez, who was familiar with Dia’s game and believed he had the qualities to play in MLS.
“Chris did a lot for me during that period of time,” Dia said of his pre-draft training period. “I was talking to him, working out with a personal trainer and just waiting to hear from teams that would maybe give me an opportunity.”
The Sporting Kansas City coaching staff had seen Dia play only a handful of times before the draft. Assistant coach Zoran Savic scouted him twice at Clemson, and Vermes had only seen him twice on video. Dia had a respectable track record—representing the United States at the under-14, under-18 and under-20 levels before starting most of his college career—but several outside backs would be at the MLS combine, where it was easier to identify standout prospects.
Nevertheless, it was hard for Vermes to ignore Martinez’s glowing recommendation. Dia’s one-on-one defending and ability to get forward in attack seemed a great fit for Sporting Kansas City’s high-pressing 4-3-3 setup.
A couple of days before the draft on Jan. 15, Vermes called Martinez and told him that he planned to select Dia in the first round at No. 20 overall.
“We’ve seen T and we think he’s good, but you’re telling us he’s really good. So I’m going with your decision and your opinion,” Vermes told Martinez, before joking, “It’s going to be on you if it doesn’t work out.”
Meanwhile, Dia had just competed in two team combines at the Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders. Both clubs liked what they saw but didn’t indicate whether they had plans to draft him.
Then he received word of Sporting Kansas City’s interest. He underwent a series of fitness tests at Sterling’s Team Speed and sent the results to Kansas City.
“Those were the three teams I thought I could maybe go to,” Dia said of Sporting Kansas City, Colorado and Seattle. “If it wasn’t one of them, who knows what would have happened.”
The family’s television was tuned to a Copa Del Rey match between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, but all attention was focused on Dia’s laptop computer.
On Jan. 15, Dia’s father, stepmother and two stepbrothers gathered around him to watch a live stream of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. Nineteen names had already been announced, and now Sporting Kansas City was on the clock.
Dia remembers the moment vividly.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber stepped to the podium and announced, “With the 20th pick in the first round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, Sporting Kansas City selects from Clemson University, midfielder…”
For a split second, time froze. Dia knew that his Clemson teammate, midfielder Manolo Sanchez, was also a draft prospect. He began to reach for his phone to send Sanchez a congratulatory text message, but then…
“…Sporting Kansas City selects from Clemson University, midfielder Amadou Dia.”
Everyone in the room jumped and yelled in joyful celebration. For Dia, it was a mix of shock, relief, pride and jubilation all at once. He never cared to wonder why Garber had announced him as a midfielder, nor did it matter. The player who had his fingers crossed of being drafted in the later rounds was taken in the first.
“I didn’t really see it coming to be honest,” Dia said. “Me and my family were ready to keep watching and keep hoping. When I heard my name called, it was just chaos from there.”
Thank you to everyone that has helped me accomplish my dream...And thank you @SportingKC for selecting me, can't wait to get started!— Amadou Dia (@Amadou_iT11) January 16, 2015
It also happened to be the perfect scenario for Dia’s brother, Birane. A freshman at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Birane was a half-hour drive from Sporting Park.
That Dia was able to experience the special moment with his entire family seems fitting. After all, his very first soccer memories are of him kicking the ball around with his older stepbrothers in the streets of Paris.
Dia lived in the French capital for the first seven years of his life, seldom going a day without playing the game he and his native country loved. When France won the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final at Stade de France, just a few miles north of his home, Dia and his family were among the thousands to descend on the famous Champs-Elysees and celebrate into the early morning.
More than 16 years later, soccer had given the Dias another reason to rejoice.
It didn’t take long—maybe the first couple of training sessions in Tucson, Arizona—for Sporting Kansas City coaches to realize they had found a diamond in the rough.
Dia possessed a natural instinct for the game and his left back position. He was a solid one-on-one defender, dangerous going forward and quick in recovery. Despite his small stature, he was strong in the air.
“It’s one thing to possess the qualities for the position,” Vermes said. “It’s another thing to be able to perform them at this level on a regular basis and do it with confidence. From day one, that’s what he’s demonstrated. He’s a very confident kid, but he’s not a cocky kid.”
Confidence, good character and a natural likeability among his teammates helped Dia integrate quickly into the squad. During one of the most challenging months of his life, he had a contagious smile on his face and rolled with all the proverbial rookie punches. He fetched cones before and after drills and gathered jerseys before and after practice. He took jokes from veterans in stride and seemed comfortable in his own skin.
“I think you could see right away that he had some very good qualities,” said centerback Ike Opara, who has partnered Dia on the right side of Sporting Kansas City’s defense in each of the first two MLS matches. “He came in with the right mindset and he’s a very high-character guy. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s done so well on the field—he’s really gotten along well with the guys and fits naturally into the team.”
Two players who already knew Dia before his arrival in Kansas City were midfielders Mikey Lopez and Roger Espinoza. Dia and Lopez were teammates on the U.S. U-18 national team in 2010. Espinoza, a Colorado native himself, trained with the Real Colorado academy teams during the offseasons when he first played for Sporting Kansas City from 2008 to 2012. He saw Dia’s upside years ago.
“He came into preseason as an underdog who didn’t go to the [MLS] combine, but I knew the type of player he was,” Espinoza said. “Peter likes guys who play with their instincts. You can always go by the tactics, but in many situations in the game, you need to move according to your instincts. T has that ability.”
Dia made a positive impression on the pitch throughout preseason, leading the team with 342 minutes played in Tucson. After officially signing for the club on Feb. 18, he was part of Sporting Kansas City’s first team squad in each of the final three friendly matches, playing out of position at right back.
“If we didn’t have preseason with him, I don’t know if he would be starting like he has been because very rarely would I take a guy that’s a lefty and put him on the right,” Vermes said. “But he has shown enough that he can do it, and it’s good when you take a risk on a guy like that and he comes through.”
Indeed, the risk appears to have paid off: the combine snub has already started two matches for a perennial MLS Cup contender. In hindsight, Dia wouldn’t have wanted the last three months to unravel any other way.
“Not many teams showed interest in me, but that’s all right,” Dia said. “I ended up here, and I’m perfectly happy with that.”