When Sammed Bawa left Ghana and arrived for his freshman season at Taft, he feared the warnings were true.
Ozzie Parente, his coach at the Watertown, Conn.-based prep school, grouped every player — Americans, internationals and Bawa, a Right To Dream student — together for preseason, regardless of talent. The catch? He didn’t know in America varsity and junior varsity teams begin preseason together, then teams are picked.
Every bit he was told — that a talented midfielder like himself should take the pro route instead of the prep one, that the level of American soccer was low — raced into his mind. Those perceptions quickly went away, helped along by reassurances from Francis Atuahene, a fellow Right To Dream player who went to Hotchkiss and plays for FC Dallas of Major League Soccer.
“Once everything got set, the level didn’t quite feel like back home in the academy, but it was close,” said Bawa, a University of North Carolina commit entering his junior season. “Then we started playing Andover, Berkshire, Loomis and Hotchkiss — they pushed me to my limits. That’s when I realized that the level overall is really good and competitive.”
The respect Bawa has for prep school soccer also is a two-way street, with coaches and players praising how Right To Dream has elevated their league.
Traditionally, NEPSAC soccer was home to Americans — domestic players mainly from New England and the surrounding states. The product was still impressive though relatively contained, punctuated by the extensive pro careers of Charlie Davies (Manchester, N.H./Brooks) and Chris Tierney (Wellesley, Mass./Noble and Greenough).
But with beds to fill and recruiting networks expanding overseas, the league has gradually become more and more international. Step in Right To Dream, a Ghana-based academy that progresses African players onto either a professional track or American prep schools.
From a soccer standpoint, the effects of the latter pathway are tangible, said Hotchkiss coach Jay Thornhill.
“When you’re within a certain bubble and demographic your whole life, you start to have blinders as to what else is out there,” said Thornhill, who coached 2017 Gatorade National Player of the Year and Right To Dream midfielder Umar Farouk Osman. “They add a fresh style to the game and there’s learning that happens on all levels.”
Suiting up alongside elite Right To Dream players improves Americans’ soccer abilities and demands more of them, said South Kent coach Owen Finberg. That byproduct comes from training sessions, NEPSAC games and even from Black Rock FC, a club program that fuses international and American players from the prep ranks.
Finberg added that Right To Dream players have even brought about broader collegiate exposure for American players.
“The Right To Dream players have given more of a reason for coaches to buy a flight and come out in their busy season,” said Finberg, who coached Right To Dream goalkeeper Richard Glemawu, last year’s Little East Conference Rookie of the Year at Southern Maine. “That opportunity at a Division 1 or 3 program might not happen if some of those guys weren’t involved.”
The soccer benefits are clear: Better players create a better on-field product, which leads to increased visibility and notoriety. The NEPSAC, with a Right To Dream boost, arguably is a better league now than it ever was.
But John Seigenthaler, coach at Millbrook, believes Right To Dream students’ biggest impact isn’t felt on the pitch. Rather, it’s felt in the community, in the classroom, in the dorms. And he’d know well by coaching Right To Dream forward Ousseni Bouda, a Burkina Faso native who took home both the 2018 Gatorade National and New York Player of the Year awards.
Seigenthaler recalls how Bouda arrived on their campus, 10 miles east of the Connecticut/New York border, as a skinny, French-speaking soccer player. Heading into his senior year, Bouda is a prefect, one of the highest honors given to Millbrook students, committed to Stanford and speaks fluent English.
“I’ve heard the Right To Dream head of school say to the group of young men that they’re not just playing for themselves and their school, but for all of Africa,” Seigenthaler said. “They carry that responsibility with pride.”
That gets at the world view Right To Dream players bring to prep campuses, ones already bustling with players from throughout the United States and the world. The global perspectives — from North Americans, Africans, Europeans or South Americans — only benefit one another.
“I encourage the Right To Dream students to share their experiences of how they got here, and then we encourage the domestic kids to share their stories as well,” Thornhill said. “That’s how we learn to support each other, to grow from each other.”
Finberg agreed, even noting the origins of Right To Dream players. On the whole, they come from humble beginnings and the chance to play soccer at a prep school alters not only their life but also their entire family’s.
“Our guys of course get a chance to play with (Right To Dream players),” Finberg said, “but more importantly get to know them on a personal level and benefit from their perspective, their world view, their willingness to adapt, to be thankful for every opportunity, to work with respect and hunger, to be their best.”
The program, clearly, is welcomed with open arms, but some pushback occasionally surfaces, coaches interviewed for this story all acknowledged. Right To Dream players often are the best player at their prep school, which can lead to less playing playing time for American players.
But Finberg, Thornhill and Siegenthaler all were quick to say such disdain is shortsighted and misses the point entirely. With prep schools hoping to foster community through education, service and co-curriculars, the presence of a Bawa or a Bouda is about far more than soccer.
“If those guys didn’t have football, there’s no way for them, just with the way our world is set up, to change their life in a positive way,” Finberg said. “Changing that is what education is all about, it’s what our schools are all about.”
Added Siegenthaler: “It’s not about excluding the opportunity at the expense of others. It’s about creating a community where our student body has exposure to interests and mindsets and experiences as broadly based as we can forge.”
The soccer piece comes naturally; it always has with Right To Dream players. It’s a memorable part, too, with alumni progressing into Major League Soccer and European leagues.
As for the campus-wide impact? That’s perhaps the most enduring benefit, especially for a program with education and character development at its core.