Bongokuhle Hlongwane: South African street soccer to Minnesota United star | MLSSoccer.com

Bongokuhle Hlongwane: South African street soccer to Minnesota United star | MLSSoccer.com

Growing up in KwaNxamalala, a mountainous village in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Bongokuhle Hlongwane never tired of street soccer sessions with his friends. Even after he earned a place on his father’s team in a regional men’s league at the tender age of 13, a step that began his progression towards a professional career in earnest.

“Yeah, I did play street soccer,” Minnesota United FC’s breakout 2023 star recalled in a one-on-one conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “We played [matches] on Saturday or Sunday, so we used to train Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then Monday and Friday we don’t train. So when I’m not training on Monday, I will go and play with the guys who are not playing [organized] football, but who are like, big in street soccer. So we put some money, we bet on it, and then we play. After we play, we go and spend that money.”

As that relentless schedule would suggest, “Saniza” grew up immersed in the game, a child of a soccer-obsessed Zulu family. His grandfather ran a local amateur club called Codesa FC, where his uncles were regulars in the lineup. Opportunities to play were always close at hand, in a culture known for swaggy displays of flair.

“I started playing at the age of six years,” Hlongwane said. “I was playing with my uncles and my cousins in the backyard. So I used to play there every time with them. I used to ask my dad or my mom, if they go to town, every time I asked them, can you bring the soccer ball for me, so that I can play? … Sometimes my dad would surprise me with a ball or something, because he knew that I liked soccer too much.

“Everyone I was around with was in love with football,” he added. “Sometimes I had to choose between my grandfather’s club and my dad’s club, which one I am supporting if they are playing.”

Ready for his moment

All those hours with a ball at his feet made for a dynamic, expressive player blessed with both athleticism and skill. He debuted for Bafana Bafana, South Africa’s national team, at 19, with their Belgian manager Hugo Broos a known admirer. But Hlongwane credits a diligent work ethic above all for his rapid rise.

“Yes, it’s lucky to me, and I appreciate it. But the luck didn’t come to me. I think I was ready for it, because I was working hard,” he said. “Waking up in the morning, go for a jog and then come back, sleep, and then later I go to training, the following day do the same thing. … I felt like I needed more, because I knew that I would score each and every game.”

Word began to spread about the young attacker in the No. 2 jersey.

“‘We know this guy who wears No. 2, and he’s the one who’s giving many teams problems,’” remembered Hlongwane. “Each and every game I would score. So I was like, now I need something that’s going to give me a challenge, I guess. But I always keep on working each and every day – I was ready for it. But I didn’t know if it’s going to come, but I’m sure by the time it came, I was like, yeah, it came, now I need to work hard again so that I will be confident enough to face it.”

When he joined top-flight club Maritzburg United in nearby Pietermaritzburg at 17, it took him less than a year to graduate up to the first team – even after some early struggles with the positional and defensive responsibilities required at that higher level.

All business on the pitch

Perhaps that’s how he found his feet so quickly when Minnesota United made him their first-ever U22 Initiative signing ahead of the 2022 season, even while adapting to the two-way duties of a winger in coach Adrian Heath’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Though his South African heritage may seem evident in his creativity and rhythm, he pushes back against that suggestion.

“Sometimes you have to adjust to a certain style,” said Hlongwane, noting the pragmatic sensibilities of the Englishman Heath. “In Europe, they don’t have that mindset that we have in South Africa. So when you come here, you have to do the right thing every time. I’m not saying what we do in South Africa, it’s not right, but sometimes it doesn’t get us anywhere.

“I do those things in training, but not if we’re having a serious training,” he said of the tricks and flicks his colleagues have come to appreciate from him and his fellow attacker Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso. “Maybe if we are still warming up or something, then I’ll do those things and then pass the ball. But during training or during the game, you won’t see me doing those things. But most of my teammates, they say, ‘Now we leading, you can do this,’ but it’s not in me, because I’m afraid of doing it. What if I don’t succeed with it? And then the coach will be like, oh, what are you doing, you know?”

While perceived to lean in a conservative direction tactically, Heath has helped a good few attacking players evolve raw talent into professional consistency over the years. As gruff as “Inchy” can be when the cameras and microphones are on, he seems to have made a meaningful connection with his South African starlet.

“He wants us to enjoy football every time,” Hlongwane said of Heath. “He gave us that freedom, but I don’t want to misuse the freedom he gave to us as players. So I want to keep it like that. I know one day I will do something [audacious], but I would say I’m waiting for the right time.”

Flying with the Loons

Hlongwane’s talent was apparent in his first MLS campaign. Yet with two goals and four assists, he felt frustrated by his lack of end product amid ample chance creation as he built an understanding with Reynoso.

That’s all changed in 2023. He stands atop MNUFC’s scoring chart with 6g/3a in league play, helping patch the gap left by Reynoso’s unexcused absence in the spring months, then poured on another 7g/1a in the Loons’ run to the Leagues Cup quarterfinals, briefly running neck and neck with Lionel Messi for that tournament’s golden boot.

“I think the confidence or the composure that I have now, it wasn’t there [last year],” he said. “That’s what’s changed my game this season, because if you can check some of the goals I scored, the composure and everything, it’s there, the confidence. So I feel like that’s what changed my game – and the hunger. Because whenever I play, I try to put everything I have on that game to help the team to win that game.”

Hlongwane, whose complex given name (it’s pronounced Bong-go-HOOK-le Hluh-ONG-wah-ney) quickly spawned the tag “Bongi” in Minnesota, recognizes his responsibility to entertain the faithful at Allianz Field. He just sees Loons victories as a more direct route to that joy than individual skill checks, however delightful they may be.

With MNUFC having banked just two of their eight league wins on home soil thus far, he may have a point.

“We have fans, if they come, they have to be happy, they have to go back home happy. Maybe even us as players, we have to go back home happy, then we’re going to start the new week with confidence,” Bongi said. “Sometimes if you see that people come to the stadium and they are not happy and you know that you should have done better – we know that we are not going to win each and every game, but putting an effort on whatever you’re doing, I think it’s good for me.”

Far from his family network and the familiar food and culture of home, Hlongwane admits to bouts of homesickness, particularly when his on-field form dips, and professes to be a homebody during his downtime in the Twin Cities.

“My life off the pitch, I try to keep it simple,” he said.

In that sense he’s happy to keep goals front of mind – those that show up on the scoreboard as well as those which in the bigger picture can maintain his career’s upward trajectory. He recognizes the lessons he’s learned in Minnesota and the faith shown in him by Loons supporters, and aims to pay them back with meaningful achievements in the days ahead.

“Hopefully one day I’ll make it to Europe. But my focus is still here, is to do well here. Then if I’m doing well here, as I’m doing right now, hopefully people will start to recognize me,” said Hlongwane.

“Since I came here, even last season [when] I was not doing much for the team, they were there for me,” he said of MNUFC’s fans. “Even today, they are still there for me. So I’m very grateful for that, and I’m happy. That’s why every time I score, I always touch the badge, because it means a lot to me. It’s for them.”

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