SBI MLS Draft Spotlight: Atuahene discovers playing identity ahead of MLS leap

SBI MLS Draft Spotlight: Atuahene discovers playing identity ahead of MLS leap

MLS Draft 2018

SBI MLS Draft Spotlight: Atuahene discovers playing identity ahead of MLS leap

When your life takes you on a journey like the one experienced by Francis Atuahene, you learn some things about yourself. You learn maturity and independence from making the decision to leave your friends and family behind in your native Ghana. You learn to embrace new cultures and customs and you learn to deal with on and off-the-field pressure that most soccer players will never have to go through.

But it took Atuahene a little bit more time to learn one important lesson. Before he took the leap and joined MLS, he had to learn who he was as a soccer player and, now that he has, he feels ready to achieve a dream that began when he left Ghana as an 11-year-old kid.

The Michigan star entered the 2017 college season with plenty of hype and expectations. He was widely seen as one of the top prospects in the country and, after battling through an early-season injury, he showed why. Despite missing the first five matches of the season, Atuahene finished with six goals and four assists, including a golden goal winner against Maryland to lock up the Wolverines’ first ever Big 10 title.

Now, with a Generation Adidas contract in hand and an MLS spot looming, Atuahene is next up in a long line of Ghanaian stars that turned a spot in a Right to Dream academy into an American success story.

“I’ve been talking to (David Accam) and asking what to expect, and same with Ema Boateng and Josh Yaro,” Atuahene told SBI. “One of the common themes that keeps appearing is that just because I’m coming to the next level doesn’t mean I have to change my game. I have to keep playing the way I’ve been playing.

“The reason why I came from Ghana to Hotchkiss to New York to Michigan and now to the next level, there’s a reason why all of this is happening. It’s because I’ve done something very good, and I don’t have to change that. I have to keep playing the way I play, and the rest will take care of itself.”

It took some time for Atuahene to learn who he was as a player. He’s long looked up to Accam as an example of what he could be. He’s quick, dynamic and creative, especially with the ball at his feet. He’s versatile, too, with the ability to play either out wide or as a No. 9.

But he needed to find that balance. Too often he was caught trying to hold up play and play like a typical No. 9. Atuahene’s game, though, isn’t typical. He has blazing speed and, at times, he wasted it by playing out of his element.

While out with a calf injury, Atuahene watched from the outside. When on the field, it’s hard to pick up the tactical nuances but, once out of the lineup, Atuahene looked to refine the mental side. While doing so, he found an identity.

“I’ve come to understand and define my style of play,” he said. “In previous years, I always wanted to hold the ball and pass it back and make a run. Over the course of the last year, I’ve come to understand that isn’t my game. My game is trying to find the spaces in the 18-yard box where I am dangerous, where I am lethal. I’ve come to understand that part of the game. I’m not a No. 9 that’s looking to hold the ball. I’m looking to make the run and find the spaces because that’s where my speed and athleticism come in.

“I’ve learned about my positions. If you put me left wing, right wing, center forward, I know what I’m doing. It’s something that I wasn’t really great at a couple of years ago.”

There are still things Atuahene wants to get better at. Consistency is a big one. Atuahene needs to be consistently dangerous and lethal. He can’t just show it in bunches. It’s about making the right decision more often than not, which is something the forward is still developing.

Michigan coach Chaka Daley says you can see it coming. Daley says Atuahene has matured as a player and reached a new level of professionalism during the season. Atuahene has learned to prepare, both mentally and physically, and Daley believes that will be the difference between just making the next level and being a legitimate factor at the next level.

Daley says he can see Atuahene as a second forward in a 4-4-2 or out wide at the next level. While Atuahene could play as a lone forward, Daley says he likes him better as a player that looks to get in behind and use his pace.

“He can stretch the defense and stretch anyone’s team in the country, maybe even the world,” Daley told SBI. “He’s that kind of pace to him. You have to think about him because of that pace, but its not just being dynamic. It’s about being clinical when you get that one or two chances. He can carve out five or six or seven in a game, but on that level he may get one or two, so you have to be in the right mindset to be slightly more clinical.

“He’s not just a runner,” he added. “Technically he’s good, real good. He has ability. He can take things in any way, shape or form.”

For Atuahene, leaving Michigan behind was a tough decision. When he chose the Wolverines, he did so because it offered him a chance to make a difference. It wasn’t a traditional power, and Atuahene saw a chance to build something special at a program that could use a spark.

He leaves feeling like the program is in a place to continue to build something and, after speaking with Daley and the coaching staff, all parties agreed that Atuahene was ready for the next level.

He’s projected to be a top pick in the upcoming MLS Draft and, when that opportunity comes, Atuahene will look to build on all of the lessons he’s learned on his road from Ghana.

“I’m very excited and privileged,” Atuahene said. “I’ve always dreamed of an opportunity like this, and MLS gave me this opportunity to make my dream come true. I’m very, very excited and I just want to make good use of this opportunity that has been given to me. I want to play the way I’ve played since I was a little kid.

“I just want to show all of the people that believed in me that they haven’t wasted their time, that they didn’t just pick a random kid,” he added. “I want to know that they picked the right guy that’s going to work hard and try at the next level. That’s what I’m excited about, making these people proud by showing that I belong in this place and can play in this place.”

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