Macoumba Kandji is one big diamond in the rough who learned his soccer on the streets and not on a youth team.

Since February is Black History Month, FrontRowSoccer.com will post one story a day about soccer players of color from the United States and the rest of the world. This multi-part series we will feature players from Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, U.S. Virgin Islands, Ghana, Bermuda, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago, Senegal and the United States. Today, we feature former Red Bulls forward Macoumba Kandji. This story was originally posted on BigAppleSoccer.com April  25, 2009.

By Michael Lewis

Montclair, N.J. — This is a story about a young forward from a Third World country who learned about the beautiful game playing for fun with his friends, kicking the ball barefoot in the streets, sometimes using a soccer ball or using plastic bags or papers wrapped together to resemble a ball.

No, we’re not talking about something that transpired decades ago with the great Pele or Diego Maradona, but rather a street-smart player on the Red Bulls named Macoumba Kandji.

A diamond in the rough, Kandji was the offensive hero in the Red Bulls’ first win of the season, scoring the first goal and setting up the second in a 2-0 triumph over Real Salt Lake last Saturday.

He has so much potential. Kandji has great movement and skill for a man his size. He can run as well. “It’s like covering a gazelle,” teammate and defender Mike Petkie said during training camp.

But unlike most of his teammates, the 23-year-old Kandji learned his soccer the unconventional way. He did not join a youth club at a young age and faced a regular regimen of practices and games. He played for the fun of it while growing up in Gambia.

“I was just playing street soccer and having fun with my friends the whole time,” Kandji said after practice at Montclair State University Tuesday. “Just playing in the street every day. On weekends, I would leave my house after practice and wouldn’t come back until eight o’clock in the morning. My aunt would be mad at me. They would ground me. The next day and I would have my soccer ball, go on the side of the house, juggle. That’s where I learned to do my tricks and stuff like that.”

Kandji, who was born in Senegal, said he lived most of his life in Gambia while his mother was in the United States. He was brought up by his mother’s sister, aunt Huja.

It might be difficult to imagine about someone who towers over many of his teammates at 6-4 and 175-lbs., but Kandji was the smallest player among his friends and cousins playing in the street.

“Yeah, I was little,” he said. “I was very little, very short and skinny. I would play with my cousins, like people five years older than me. They would have like a tournament and they would put there so I could cause fouls for them. Every time I would embarrass somebody, you would see the crowd like screaming. And the next think you would see the guy coming after me, like trying to two-foot me. I grew up getting used to it, getting whacked, playing barefoot in the street, just having fun all over the place.”

Kandji said he and his friends used “everything” as a ball.

“Sometimes we would have a soccer ball. We would get a tennis ball,” he said. “We would play with plastic bags. You put a lot of plastic bags together and you tape it up. Tennis ball. You put papers together and you wrap it up. A soccer ball. Anything we can find.”

The fields? Inside a house or outside, as long as you could kick a ball.

“They kicked us out of my friend’s houses. My friends parents: ‘Oh stop playing soccer in the house.’ We would go to the street. We would kick a ball in somebody’s house and they would seize the ball and they wouldn’t give it back because we broke a window or something.

“Fields were like sand. You just go out there and play barefoot. Some people over there when they play barefoot they play good.”

Kandji didn’t play his first game until after he emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17, first in high school, then with the Charlotte Soccer Club in North Carolina.

He went on to play for Georgia Military College, the Atlanta Silverbacks team in the Premier Development League and eventually for the Silverbacks’ USL First Division team, where he scored 11 times in 21 matches last season.

Adapting from showcasing his individual talents to team play, was a challenge, needless to say, because Kandji was brought up on street soccer.

“When I first came to the Charlotte Soccer Club I was still playing street ball,” he said. “I would take five players on and I would lose it [the ball]. The coach told me you have to take people on when you have to and you have to pass when you have to and you have to recognize that. Coaches are teaching that everywhere I go. Over here, this coach is using my skills and teaching me to develop me to take me to the next level.”

One of Kandji’s favorite tricks is a backheel pass. He attempted one in the midfield Saturday, but it did not please Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who fined him.

“Coming from what I come from, I can appreciate the flamboyant plays,” said Osorio, a native of Colombia. “I can understand that. There is a place in football, There is a place in the match and there is a place when specific areas on the field where that can happen. There are areas that are absolutely not. I will not tolerate that. He is learning.”

Osorio pointed it out to Kandji on video.

“He got mad at me,” Kandji said. “But after the game he was like, ‘You’re lucky. You’re lucky’ since we won. Sometimes I will pass back and he will give me crap like you and your backheel. It’s crazy.

Kandji aid that trying to eradicate old habits is easier said than done.

“I recognize it now,” he said. “Sometimes I would do a backheel somewhere when I’m not supposed to do it. When it’s on, its nice. It’s in my head already. It’s something with me so its going to be very hard trying to get out of me some back heel and stuff. He [Osorio] will give me crap about it every time (laughs). I just got to change that a little bit.

Still a diamond in the rough, Kandji will tell you he still has much to learn. “I don’t think you will ever stop learning in this game,” he said. “I think you will learn every day.”

Red Bulls captain and striker Juan Pablo Angel, who has done it all from playing in the English Premiership and internationally for his native Colombia, is Kandji’s mentor up front and has noticed he has picked up things fast.

“I just try to talk to him on a daily basis,” Angel said. “He has some natural skills. He’s learning very, very fast. Now he is understanding what professional soccer is about, how he has to approach the game on a daily basis. I’m sure he will have his ups and downs. But we know he has ability. He’s capable of what he is doing right now. We want him to be happy and enjoy this opportunity that he has been given. We want him to develop into a great player. Only time will tell.”

As for his potential, that’s up to Kandji.

“It’s hard to tell,” Angel said. “He has the ability. It’s up to him. How much effort he puts on every day, how he handles being recognized in the media. when he gets goals people will start talking about. all those facts play a part. we as a organization. we have to take care of him, teach him, protect him. and let him have fun. at the end of the day, this is a game and we want him to take it as serious as he can. but we want him just to enjoy it as well.”

Osorio has seen a quantum leap in improvement since Kandji joined the club last September.

“He’s holding the ball better,” he said. “He’s taking less touches and when he takes the touches, he does it on the offensive third. . . . He takes less liberties in the middle third. we are very pleased with his performance. On top of that, he scores goals. It doesn’t have to be wonderful goals, tap-ins and go on compete for rebounds and second balls. He has improved substantially and credit to him because of all the effort he has put into the training.”

Kandji, who is the son of a former Senegal national team player, has improved enough that the Senegal and Gambia soccer associations have contacted him about joining their respective National Teams.

“Right now everything’s open,” he said. “People are asking me a lot. I haven’t decided anything yet. Playing for the U.S., Gambia or Senegal. we’ll see. I’m just trying to get the club soccer right now, to be a regular goal-scorer. After I get that settled, I can think about the international [game]. Senegal called me back, obviously. That’s when my papers weren’t ready yet. Gambia called me back, too. My papers weren’t ready yet. The U.S. hasn’t called me yet. We’ll see what happens in the future.”

These days, Kandji is just happy to play professionally and get his visa situation sorted out. Last week he received an asylum visa, which will allow him to travel to visit family in Gambia and Europe and with the Red Bulls to Toronto and either Caribbean or Central American countries when their participation in the CONCACAF Champions League begins this summer.

“I feel very relieved,” he said. “It was in the back of my head, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the country. I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. I cannot travel or do anything.’ Now I feel a lot [more] relaxed.”

Now Kandji can play the beautiful game in any street or stadium in the world.