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Creative player trades dirt for turf

New Timber learned skills on the streets of Kenya without a coach
by: DENISE FARWELL, Midfielder Lawrence Olum was plucked from the parking-lot games of Nairobi by a recruiter from Missouri Baptist University.

The love of the game led Lawrence Olum to America, and to the Portland Timbers.

Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, he and his friends played soccer for fun. They had no team, and no coaches.

'We could make a ball out of anything, paper or whatever,' he says. 'We'd find a small space or an empty parking lot and just play.'

Nairobi is a city of about 3 million, but through high school Olum never played organized soccer. 'It was always just friends coming over and getting a game together,' he says.

After high school, though, he was chosen to play select soccer for the mayor of the city.

One day, a man approached him and asked him about his education. Olum told him he had graduated from high school. How about your grades, the man asked. 'We don't have GPAs, but I told him I had a 3.5 equivalent,' Olum says.

How would you like a college education, asked the man from Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis. He then called Olum's mother. 'All she heard was 'free education,' and it was for her,' Olum says, laughing.

Three weeks later, Olum was on a plane, headed for the United States.

'I had mixed feelings,' he says, 'but you want to challenge yourself and get new experiences, and see the world you only see on TV.'

Welcome to Jordan country

He initially had no idea where St. Louis or Missouri were. 'But I had a clue about Chicago from watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls,' he says. 'The NBA is big in Kenya. Everybody loves Michael.'

Olum, a 6-2 midfielder, played four years of soccer at Missouri Baptist, three times earning NAIA honorable mention All-America honors. Last year, he scored a team-high nine goals in 16 matches for the St. Louis Lions of the United Soccer League's Premier Development League.

Now he is two levels higher in the USL, having signed with the First Division Portland Timbers.

'I'm trying not to make it a big challenge, but it is,' says Olum, 22. 'Coming from nowhere to actually playing somewhere with your name on the back of a jersey is a big challenge.'

Portland coach and General Manager Gavin Wilkinson wanted him on the team.

'As far as being a gifted athlete, a dominant presence, the football awareness, the intelligence, he's got tremendous potential,' Wilkinson says. 'This is obviously a whole other level for him, but he's capable of getting forward and he's good in the air. I see him as possibly playing in the middle of the park for us.'

No coach told him what to do

The creativity that came from playing unsupervised soccer as a youngster is one of Olum's strengths.

'I don't dance on the ball a lot, but you'll see some good touches and passes, and definitely some good headers. I've got some hops,' says Olum, who played volleyball for Missouri Baptist as a freshman and likes basketball, too.

'In Kenya, there was no coach to say, 'I want you to play this way,' so you just be creative. You learn a couple of moves so you can have the upper hand on your friends.'

Olum is an only child. His mother works for the government, and his father works for a telephone company. He hopes to earn a few remaining credits at Missouri Baptist after the Timber season and get his business/marketing degree. He wants to play pro soccer as long as he can, then probably return home.

Meanwhile, he exchanges e-mails with his parents, talks to them by phone about once every two weeks and is hoping they can watch some of Portland's games on the Internet.

He's moved into a Beaverton apartment with three other Timbers -Garrett Marcum, Neil Dombrowski and David Hague -and is learning his way around the metro area.

'They told me it rains a lot here, but I was up for the challenge,' he says. 'If I can make the move from Kenya to Missouri, I can definitely make the move from St. Louis to Portland.'

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Portland Timbers

The Timbers will play only one preseason game against another First Division team (Vancouver, 4 p.m. Sunday, Alder Creek Middle School), but Portland coach Gavin Wilkinson says that's enough.

'It would be lovely to have MLS teams come play us, but it becomes what's realistic and what's affordable,' he says of the schedule. 'It's better than what we've had in the past. We'll play seven games, and in every one the expectations and the quality should be a lot higher.'

As for the absence of preseason games against Seattle, 'I think we play them enough during the season, why throw another game in the mix,' Wilkinson says.

• Midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer, 24, led the Timbers in scoring last year with eight goals and eight assists, and played in all 28 games. His role could be slightly different, and even more varied, this season.

'I think a lot was thrown on his shoulders and he felt a lot of responsibility to score,' Wilkinson says. 'He was the only one putting the ball in the back of the net for us. I'd like to see a little more disciplined Luke this season, but with the same productivity.'

- Steve Brandon