In the fields, parking lots and streets of Cameroon, soccer is a game of survival.
You don’t play for a scoreboard or a scout. You play to keep playing, with four-on-four or five-on-five games filling hours of every day. A goal means another game; allowing one means waiting to get back on.
“Inside, you’re working so hard to make sure you don’t lose,” Tony Tchani reminisces about his soccer upbringing in West Africa. “If you lose, you might be out for a good 15 or 20 minutes. There was no time. It was just one goal and you’re out.
“After school, we would drop off our bags, get whatever balls we could and play soccer,” he continues. “I liked playing with small balls; the little [futsal] balls were always really fun to me. People would always say I was really good with them. I didn’t know why, but I was a guy who was always dancing around people and having fun. You never thought about making it a career. It was just about having fun.”
Of course, the career came later. And while Tchani uses a full-size ball now with Columbus Crew SC, he still likes to dance around rather than plow through defenders.
In many ways, those score-or-sit games in Cameroon made Tchani the player he is today, a 6-foot-4 box-to-box midfielder with plenty of brawn and lung-busting determination, but also a player who finds plenty of joy in the game, boasting uncommonly soft feet accustomed to making the best of makeshift fields and equipment.
“When people first saw me [in high school and college], if they hadn’t heard about me they would just think, ‘Oh, he’s just a big guy,’” Tchani says. “When they saw me actually play, they would say, ‘Wow, he can play.’”
It hasn’t always been that way in MLS, where, far from the makeshift fields of his youth, Tchani has often found joy hard to come by.
After a frustrating rookie season with the New York Red Bulls that frequently drew the ire of Thierry Henry, Tchani was traded twice, struggled with injury and failed to make more than 15 starts for three straight seasons. The No. 2 pick in the 2010 SuperDraft, a College Cup winner who’d drawn comparisons to one of the all-time MLS greats in Shalrie Joseph, became a story of unrealized potential.
Tony Tchani wasn’t the next great anything. He was a cautionary tale.