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A happy return for Mwanga

Friends, family set to celebrate former Jeff star’s MLS visit
by: DREW HALLOWELL Danny Mwanga (left) of the Philadelphia Union gets off a shot around a defender in a 2010 MLS game against Colorado.

The first 19 years of Philadelphia Union striker Danny Mwanga’s life are befitting of a mythological hero. Mwanga was born into the bloodshed and sorrow of the Second Congo War. The war claimed the life of his father and forced his mother to flee the country, leaving Mwanga and his three older sisters behind. As a boy, Mwanga played soccer in the streets after school to forget some of the pain. A daring escape in June 2006 reunited Mwanga and his sisters with their mother in Northeast Portland. In America, Mwanga became a soccer prodigy. At Jefferson High, he once scored 53 goals in nine matches. In two years at Oregon State, he was named Pac-10 freshman of the year and Pac-10 player of the year. In 2010, Mwanga was the No. 1 overall choice by the expansion Philadelphia side in the MLS SuperDraft. He finished his first MLS season as a rookie of the year finalist. “Sometimes I sit down and look back on where I’ve came from and everything that I’ve been through,” Mwanga says. “It seems like a miracle. But I did it in God. God is the reason why I’m here, and I thank God every day for it.” On Friday night at Jeld-Wen Field, the Union (4-1-1, 13 points) will play the Timbers (3-3-1, 10 points). It will mark the homecoming chapter of the Mwanga story. “Coming back, playing in front of friends and family, it’s going to be a great moment for me,” Mwanga says. “Every day, I think about (playing in Portland). That gives me motivation to push myself harder and harder in training. It’s going to be one of the best moments of my career, and I will remember it for the rest of my career.” Monty Hawkins, who coached Mwanga on the Westside Metros club team and became a surrogate father, estimates that 100 to 200 people with direct ties to Mwanga will attend the match. Afterward, about 50 friends and family are expected to gather with him at a downtown hotel. “It’s just another fantastic milestone for him to get a chance to play here,” Hawkins says. The 6-2, 175-pound Mwanga is off to a slow start in the 2011 season. He has played in all six matches but started only three, recording one assist and taking two shots for Union, which is last in the league in goals scored (five). “It’s a little bit slow,” Mwanga admits. “I haven’t really started a lot of games. But every time I’ve gotten on the field I was just trying to be my best and help the team.” Like many strikers, Mwanga is streaky. He did not score a goal until the eighth week of the season last year. Then he had a stretch of three matches with stoppage-time goals, before finishing the year with seven goals and four assists. Mwanga wants to work his way back into the starting lineup. For now, though, he is trying to be a difference-maker late in matches. “Any player, you want to start,” he says. “At the same time, I’m a player for the team. Maybe the coach sees me as one of the guys to come in and boost the energy of the team a little bit. Right now, I’m just trying to stay focused and be ready whenever they need me.” It has been difficult, but Mwanga has adjusted to the challenges of living on his own in Philadelphia. “I have grown up a lot,” he says. “Last year, I was still trying to come back home and visit the family because it was really hard to be away. I started realizing this is pretty much it. You have to move on. Just being away from the family, paying bills by yourself, I learned so many things. The more decisions that I have to make by myself, the more I realize that I’m starting my new life. My own life.” Playing professional soccer always was Mwanga’s dream. Even more than that, though, it is a means to an end to help him give back to the Congolese people. He is collecting cleats and jerseys to send to some of the friends and family he used to play soccer with in the Congo. That is far from enough for him, though. “I have been able to just help a little bit,” he says. “But my goal is really not just to help a small amount of people. Soccer is very important to me. I have to take it very seriously because this is something that I have been dreaming on since I’ve been a little kid. “Soccer is a way to really put me in a spot where I’ll be able to help others, as well.” Hawkins is proud of him. “This last year and a half have felt like 10 with all the things that have happened,” Hawkins says. “So just seeing him grow into a young man and getting to do what he loves, whether he scores, subs in, starts, whatever his performances are, you’re still proud of him competing and doing it.”