No. 1 pick Danladi ready to learn from 'striker's coach' Heath in Minnesota
LOS ANGELES -- Abu Danladi spent practically his entire childhood in mild weather, whether it was in his native Ghana or later in Southern California. But after being chosen No. 1 in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft by Minnesota United, he expressed no reservations about now playing in the chillier environs of the Twin Cities.
When asked if he has a winter jacket, Dunladi said, "I've got it all ready; I'm really excited."
Danladi was among three players thought to be in the running for the No. 1 selection, along with Syracuse defender Miles Robinson, who was taken second by Atlanta United, and Duke University's Jeremy Ebobisse, who the Portland Timbers traded up to take at No. 4. Danladi said at the conclusion of the combine that the number of teams he interviewed with went into the double digits. But he indicated he had no idea he would be chosen first.
"It was more like a really big surprise for me," he said.
There were reasons for his doubts. All week during the MLS Player Combine, the whispers about Danladi's flaws grew louder, in particular his penchant for injury. Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath heard those comments, as well, and it wasn't until he met with Danladi during player interviews that those concerns were put to rest.
"You ring around as many people that you know, who have been in contact with the kid," said Heath. "But I'm very much a gut-feeling person, and we had a very straight and frank exchange of views from my point of view. I made it plain to him that it's a totally different environment that he's coming into, and he was very, very clear in the fact that he just wanted to come in and play and contribute."
The fact remains that the college system does place immense physical demands on players. The season of around 20 to 25 games is compressed into three months, allowing precious little time to recover. It was an explanation adopted by Danladi following the last round of combine games on Thursday, and it seemed enough to satisfy Heath, allowing the manager to focus on Danladi's considerable talents, chief among them speed and a heavy shot. He spent part of combine playing in a wide midfield role, but Heath is convinced that his newest protege is a player for the center of the pitch.
"I just think [Danladi's] upside is enormous," said Heath in an interview with ESPN FC's Taylor Twellman. "He makes great runs now. If we start working with him, keep him fit, keep him healthy -- because he's had a couple of issues like that -- we're confident we've got a guy who, since I've been in America, is the most exciting talent."
"He's got that thing that you can't teach: real pace," Heath added. "I'll be amazed if he can't contribute to us this year."
Minnesota is just the latest stop on Danladi's journey. Born in Takoradi, Ghana, Danladi attended the Right to Dream academy, which allowed him to move to the United States at age 16. He attended Dunn High School in Los Olivos, California, just outside of Santa Barbara. Danladi credited the whole Los Olivos community, as well as his host family, for making him feel welcome. He wasn't the only Ghanaian in the area, either. Right to Dream has placed several players near Santa Barbara who are now on MLS rosters, including the Philadelphia Union's Josh Yaro and LA Galaxy's Emmanuel Boateng. Boateng, in particular, has become a friend and mentor to Danladi.
"It was easier to adjust because there were more Right to Dream guys here," he said. "They've been great and they've been successful."
That experience of dealing with unfamiliar surroundings should serve Danladi well as he enters the professional game, and he said he is ready to let his skills shine. The fact that Heath has had success developing young forwards such as Sporting Kansas City's Dom Dwyer and Orlando City's Cyle Larin should benefit Danladi, as well.
"I spoke to [Heath] three days ago, and everyone knows his reputation," said Danladi. "I said, 'Getting to play for you would be a blessing.' He's a striker's coach, and I'm a striker, and I'm looking forward to improving. I think I'll learn a lot from him. Just being called and knowing he was going to be my coach got me really, really excited."
Now it will be up to Danladi to warm the hearts of the Minnesota United faithful.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.