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In December of 2008 when he was an assistant coach at Akron, Dave Giffard found himself in — of all places — Lusaka, Zambia, as he sought to replace America’s best college soccer player with a kid he hoped would become one.
Akron striker Steve Zakuani had just been named as Soccer America’s Player of the Year that season and decided to move on from college to the professional ranks. Giffard, in search of a suitable replacement for Zakuani, had zeroed in on a quick and crafty striker from the south African country in Yoram Mwila.
In Mwila’s living room, he and Giffard zipped through months worth of paperwork in a fraction of the time in an attempt to get Mwila’s paperwork through the NCAA clearing house in time for him to get on the spring roster.
It didn’t work.
Back in the states, Mwila’s paperwork took longer than expected. And in the meantime, another rising star at Akron, Darlington Nagbe, stepped up into the starting role Mwila was originally brought in to fill. By the time Mwila gained clearance, he was the third wheel out in a system that featured two strikers.
So when Giffard came to VCU, Mwila decided he needed more playing time to develop and followed along, even though he was leaving a team that finished second in the country in 2009 and won it all last season.
“I think certainly Yo(ram) would have not minded winning a national championship, and he and I both knew that was going to happen,” Giffard said. “But I think in terms of long-term development, we were the right fit.
“I think it was a good move for everyone involved; Akron needed a different kind of guy than when we recruited Yoram, and Yoram needed the opportunity to play more and to develop that way.”
Indeed, as it usually is, playing more was the key.
“I didn’t play as much there so I started talking (to other coaches) and found out I probably was going to be a 90-minute guy here,” Mwila said of his decision to transfer to VCU. “A big thing for me is you have to play to get better and to evaluate yourself so that was the biggest key.”
Thus far this season, the move is paying significant dividends. Mwila had only four goals and no assists in the entirety of last season; this season, a mere four games in, he already has three goals and an assist. His goals have helped make the Rams 4-0 heading into this weekend’s play.
And with that, the team moved into the NSCAA’s Top 25 poll this week for the first time in six years. VCU debuted on the Top 25 rankings at the No. 16 slot after receiving 157 votes in the coaches’ poll.
Even though it was way back in 2005 when the men’s soccer team was last ranked, Giffard and Mwila aren’t satisfied. Perhaps that’s not surprising, though, given that they came to VCU from a school of the highest soccer standard in Akron.
“It doesn’t mean anything four games in; it doesn’t mean anything to begin with,” Giffard said of the ranking. “It is nice for the program, nice for the fans, nice for recruits to hear VCU and hear VCU soccer.”
“We’re 4-0 but that’s in the rear view; it’s done,” Mwila said. “We still have goals we want to accomplish and want to achieve.”
They have goals to achieve in, of all places, Richmond, Va., the city both Mwila and Giffard ended up in some three years after meeting for the first time that day in Mwila’s living room. And it’s all in the name of becoming one of the best college soccer teams in the country.
Photo by: Chris Conway