Ann Arbor — AFC Ann Arbor’s assault on the Great Lakes Conference standings has been assisted by a pair of Kenyans who are soft-spoken off the field, but roar like lions on it.
Defender Stanley Okumu and midfielder Chris Odhiambo are two of the Mighty Oak's higher-profile imports this season as the team continues its dominant run in the National Premier Soccer League, which included a nine-game unbeaten streak that was only halted last Friday in a 2-0 defeat at Grand Rapids.
The pair's breakthrough moment came during Ann Arbor’s 1-0 victory over Detroit City FC on June 11 at Keyworth Stadium.
Odhiambo slipped in the deciding goal, squeezing Azaad Liadi’s low cross past DCFC goalkeeper Fernando Pina.
He followed up his heroics with a two-assist performance in Ann Arbor’s 4-0 demolition of Kalamazoo FC the following match a week ago Friday at Skyline High School, which gave the team what turned out to be a four-point cushion at the top in the Great Lakes Conference summit with three matches to go.
Okumu’s two defensive gems — heading away a Danny Deakin left-footed howitzer in the first half and a lunging shot block in the 90th minute — highlighted the Mighty Oak’s shutout victory against rival Le Rouge in the hostile confines of Keyworth Stadium.
"It's all for the team," the soft-spoken Okumu told The Detroit News a few weeks later after practice at Wide World Sports in Ann Arbor.
Kenya is known for its distance runners and vast wildlife. When it comes to its international soccer, not so much.
So there is a whiff of irony AFC Ann Arbor sporting director and coach Eric Rudland would spot Okumu and Odhiambo while representing the African nation on international duty for the Kenyan U23 squad when it played Uzbekistan in March friendly.
Okumu was on Rudland’s radar, but the sporting director was pleased to learn other Kenyans might be available, including Odhiambo, who scored in the 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan.
"They have been huge additions for us," Rudland said.
The semi-professional club worked with agency Ascension Athletes to facilitate the transfer, which included brokering the players’ release.
Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake and United Soccer League’s St. Louis FC also forwarded letters, stating they would be monitoring each player’s progress with the potential of signing them.
“They've had a lot of eyes on them since they've been here,” Rudland said.
Kenya is overshadowed on the African soccer scene by the likes of Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal and Egypt. Kenya is brimming with soccer talent, said Odhiambo, 20, who is from Nairobi.
"Soccer-wise, the talent is there," Odhiambo said. "It just needs to be nurtured."
Odhiambo joined the youth program at Kenya Commercial FC to help support his family, which includes eight siblings. Their father is a mechanic.
At an early age, the family moved from Busia, a small town in the western part of Kenya, to a rough neighborhood in Nairobi, the Eastlands, said Joseph Lennarz, Ascension Athletes managing partner.
Odhiambo's Kenyan's club was gracious in signing off on the transfer since African academies often rely on player sales to sustain operations.
"I think they recognized how great of an opportunity it was for him," Lennarz said. "Stan and Chris are very close friends, having played together for the Kenya Youth National Team set-up at various times, it did not take much convincing."
Thanks to teammates, the pair have acclimated to the new surroundings.
Okumu connects with his family — his father is a soccer team manager and his mother a teacher — through Skype regularly. The Kenyans share an apartment with Mighty Oak teammates Matt "Frenchy" Braem, Jordan Montoya and Liadi.
"I think it is one of the best things that has ever happened to me," Okumu said. "This team is very friendly, so it was very easy to work with them."
Jamaican defender Sergio Campbell, in particular, has ensured they are not strangers in a strange land.
He shuttles them to the grocery store or out to dinner, frequently taking them to the Jamaican Jerk Pit in Ann Arbor. "We are very familiar there," Okumu said.
"I was once in their shoes," said Campbell, 26, who arrived as a teenager to play collegiately at Central Arkansas before professional stints with MLS Columbus Crew and USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Rochester Rhinos. "I came here and I didn't know anyone, coming from outside it's really hard to get to know people, the language barrier and stuff like that.
"It's a perfect opportunity for me to give back, you know."
Okumu and Odhiambo are showcasing their talents in U.S. soccer's fourth tier where their raw skills immediately stand out. Some refinements still need to be made, suggests Boyzzz Khumalo, AFC Ann Arbor assistant coach.
Okumu has to fine-tune his defensive technique such as playing the long ball whereas Odhiambo is still adjusting a switch to center forward from the wing.
"He gets in those little gaps. He holds the ball for us, which is a good thing," Khumalo said of Odhiambo. "The guy is slowly but surely getting it."
Khumalo did the initial research on Okumu, which led to Rudland landing two exceptional talents in unchartered territory.
"The thing about talent is that you have to go find it,” said Khumalo, a former professional player who hails from South Africa. “That's the thing. Everybody knows if you go to Barcelona you are going to find talent. In Africa, too, with my foundation (Umhlaba Vision Foundation) what we do is go to the rural areas and try to find talent because nobody goes there.”
AFC ANN ARBOR's REMAINING REGULAR SEASON HOME MATCHES
at Skyline High School, Ann Arbor
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
■ Friday, June 29, vs. FC Columbus
■ Saturday, July 7, vs. FC Indiana
Tickets: $10 adult, $6 youth at the gate ($8 adult, $5 youth in advance)