Photo Courtesy Denver Post
Mike Potempa was on a scouting trip in Nairobi, Kenya, when he saw three young boys sitting on the side of the field. With a game about to start, he told one of the players he was scouting to ask the boys if they wanted to join in.
Soon enough, there was one player who stood out to Potempa on the pitch — one of the three boys who had originally been sitting on the side. His name was Philip Mayaka, and last month the Rapids took him No. 3 overall in the MLS SuperDraft.
“All the people in Kenya were telling me, ‘No, no, no, we don’t know him, he’s not on the national team, he’s not blah, blah, blah,’” said Potempa, the general manager and co-founder of the Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy (SIMA) in Florida. “But I didn’t care, I saw it with my own eyes. And I want to work with these (type of) kids.”
Mayaka wasn’t viewed as a top prospect due to his size. He is 5-foot-7, on a good day. That did not matter to Potempa, who immediately started building a relationship with Mayaka. The more he learned, the more he liked the then-15-year-old, and he ended up inviting him to play at SIMA.
Mayaka had a couple of offers to play in Europe but the opportunity to get an education in the United States while also playing for a top soccer program was too good to pass up.
“I had an option to go to Norway but it was unclear,” Mayaka said. “But I wanted to do schoolwork. My biggest aim was to finish high school. So I took the chance to finish high school, play soccer and then go pro.”
When the savvy defensive midfielder hopped on a plane for the U.S., it was his first time ever leaving Kenya. And he was in for some culture shock.
“It was my first time flying actually. And when I got here, the only food I saw in America that I had eaten was fries, in Kenya we call them chips, and rice,” Mayaka said. “And then I tried this meat that was really sweet and it was really disgusting.”
Mayaka stuck with his rice and chips for a while. Eventually, he started getting more comfortable with the cuisine and on the pitch.
Clemson head soccer coach Mike Noonan saw Mayaka during his junior season and realized his potential. But Clemson didn’t need a defensive midfielder at the time, and Mayaka wasn’t getting much interest nationally. Then the Tigers lost a midfielder to the MLS draft and Noonan circled back.
“Mike (Noonan) said he needed a defensive midfield player,” Potempa said. “And I said, ‘Well, I have no idea why this kid is not wrapped up by now. It was April of his senior year and he was without a college scholarship opportunity. I told him, ‘Look, if you need a No. 6, this kid not only will start for you from the beginning, he’ll be a Freshman of the Year, All-ACC, and after two, if not three years, he will be gone (for the pros).”
Mayaka committed to Clemson soon after. But before arriving on campus, he attended a showcase in California. Soon after, Mayaka had two professional contract offers, Potempa said.
“That was basically the Phil Mayaka coming-out party,“ Noonan said. “And at that point, obviously, Mike (Potempa) did get some looks for him, professional clubs and some professional offers. But Phil was pretty committed and his family was pretty committed to getting him to go to school.”
Noonan knew right away he had a budding star on his hands. After one season, Mayaka was named ACC Freshman of the Year, first team all-ACC and second team All-America.
Despite being projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, Mayaka decided to return to Clemson for his sophomore year. It was the only way he would be guaranteed an opportunity to complete his degree once soccer was finished.
Right before the pandemic hit, Mayaka had an offer that was hard to turn down: a transfer to Levante U.D. in Spain’s first division. The chance to play in La Liga and develop in one of the top leagues in the world is something that doesn’t come along often for college players. Had the pandemic not shut everything down, he would be playing in Spain right now.
Instead, Mayaka returned to Clemson and had a new role on the team. He was no longer the box-to-box midfielder who scored two goals and tallied eight assists as a freshman. Rather, he played defensively in a No. 6 role. That resulted in less tallies on the stat sheet but just as big of an influence on the game.
“We’re winning games and you walk off the field and he doesn’t show up on the stat line but we don’t win that game without (Mayaka),” Noonan said.
When the Rapids traded up for the No. 3 overall pick, they liked the top three players but it was unclear which one would fall to them. They were looking for a smart, savvy and versatile player capable of playing multiple positions who could contribute right away.
That’s exactly what they got in Mayaka, whose improbable journey from the sidelines of a soccer field in Kenya to the foothills of the Rockies will give him yet another chance to prove he should’ve been on the pitch all along.
“I always think about that,” Potempa said. “Imagine that I had not asked those three kids to play and I never saw those three. And now, of course, the rest is history to where he’s a generation Adidas contract player in MLS, went in the first round (of the) draft and obviously now he’s gonna be in a position to help his family.” By Chase Howell, Denver Post