Greg Lalas
Friday February 8th, 2008

ACCRA, Ghana -- Alain Nkong is something of an accidental villain this weekend in Ghana.

With all the big names playing for Cameroon -- Samuel Eto'o, Geremi, Alexandre Song -- no one here thought they'd be mentioning Nkong's name the morning after the host nation lost, 1-0, to the Indomitable Lions in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations.

No one except Cameroon coach Otto Pfister.

"He is a very good scorer," the wily, acerbic German told a local radio station the day before the match. "I brought him from this team in Mexico, ja, and he is very dangerous."

Nkong rewarded Pfister's confidence with a lovely goal against Ghana on Thursday. He played a quick one-two with Eto'o and found himself in behind the defense. His low, hard shot to the far post beat Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson, and his teammates mobbed him in celebration.

"It is the most important goal in my career," he said after the game. "When I got the ball from Samuel, I already knew what I was going to do."

I have to admit: Having watched Nkong several times during his unlikely stint in Major League Soccer, I never thought I'd be writing about his scoring the winning goal in the Cup of Nations semifinals. Nkong was with the Colorado Rapids off and on from 2005 to '07, and he never really impressed. He scored five goals in 33 appearances, but he never seemed to fit in coach Fernando Clavijo's system (if Clavijo has a system).

This is becoming the trajectory of Nkong's career: Join a club, do moderately well, but not well enough to stick, then get dumped.

At the end of the '06 MLS season, he was released. He landed at in-flux Mexican club Atlante, which had just relocated from Mexico City to Cancún.

Nkong scored the first goal at Atlante's new Estadio Quintana Roo in Cancún and, against all odds, the un-fancied club went on to win the Mexican Apertura Championship last fall.

But when Nkong decided to represent his country at the Cup of Nations, the club dispatched him on loan to its second-division affiliate, Club León. How's that for a muchas gracias?

Maybe this goal -- his second of the Cup -- will change the 28-year-old's fortunes. He obviously has the skills to compete at a high level, and now he has made a name for himself.

But, unfortunately, none of that shine will rub off on MLS. In fact, in news reports today, the league is mentioned only as part of his "journeyman" résumé. It's the same way MLS has appeared in the background checks of popular Ghana striker Junior Agogo.

There's a lesson here. Namely, maybe MLS should be recruiting African players, as it did at one time, and sticking with them a little longer. The career path for most African players is well-documented, from the local youth academies to the midlevel leagues in Europe. From there, the best are sold for big money to top clubs like Chelsea and Barcelona.

Why couldn't MLS take the place of those midlevel leagues in Europe? The league says it is not a developmental league, but until it can compete with the English Premier League or Spain's La Liga, developing is a smart business strategy. MLS already has a good track record of developing young talent, like DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey, and bringing African players in would seem a natural extension.

Recently, MLS teams have made a concerted efforts to attract quality young Latin American players. Fine. Juan Carlos Toja and Wilman Conde have been excellent additions to the league. But MLS' player register is littered with Latin American players who don't pan out, especially for the money (see: Pavón, Carlos).

"The league could get players of 10 times the quality for about half the price," says agent Pat McCabe of First Wave Sports. McCabe has represented many of the Africans who have tried their luck in the U.S., including Mamadou Diallo, Abbe Ibrahim and Dipsy Selolwane. He also represented Agogo during his MLS time.

"Why don't they come over and have a look?" McCabe asks. "For example, Cape Verde has a good crop of young players, and it's only a six-hour flight from New York or Boston."

In conjunction with First Wave Sports, Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerway nearly came to Ghana. He was going to watch some games put on by the local youth academy of Liberty Professionals, the club Chelsea's Michael Essien came through.

Lagerway's plans fell through at the last minute, but it's a good sign that some people in the league recognize the possibility of finding another Nkong or Agogo here. And if you're really lucky, you'll find another Essien.

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