Lalas Abubakar is going places. And he has been for quite some time, in every meaning of the term.
The 24-year-old defender joined the Rapids in May of this year on a loan deal from the Columbus Crew. He’s a standout player, not only for his beefy 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, but also for his misshapen shock of dreadlocks that rises from atop his head; like a lopsided peacock, or the charred wreckage of a collapsing building.
Since his acquisition, he has provided the Rapids’ defense with exceptional positioning and quick reactions that have helped to stabilize a backline that had been leaking goals. His talent, coupled with a coaching change that brought a more cautious approach, has yielded immediate results. In 11 games without Abubakar this season, Colorado conceded 2.63 goals per match. In the five games Abubakar has played since joining the squad, the Rapids have conceded an average of just 1.2 goals per game.
Abubakar’s move away from Columbus has also propelled him from a reliable backup to an everyday player; a change that will give him the exposure and opportunity to perhaps be boosted to new heights.
Lalas was raised in Kumasi, Ghana, where the soccer bug bit him early. Despite a family that emphasized his schooling, Abubakar’s only interest as a child was football.
“Sometimes I go out and I play the entire day,” Lalas said. “And I don’t come back home until the evening. My family, they would want me to come back early, but I would be a little bit stubborn and stay out with my friends.”
After playing youth soccer with the Khalid Stars in Kumasi and with his boarding school, Lalas went to the University of Ghana in the capital city of Accra to play at the start of the 2013 school year, forgoing an offer to turn professional in the Ghanaian Premier League.
Meanwhile, almost 6,000 miles away, his childhood friend, Amass Amonkona, was playing for the University of Dayton. Amonkona tipped Dayton coach Dennis Currier about Abubakar, and Currier soon saw that Abubakar was the real deal and offered him a scholarship on the spot.
After visa issues prevented him from earning a six-figure salary playing professionally in Portugal, he decided to move to Ohio and join the Flyers — a move that pleased his family, who were none too happy that Lalas wanted to skip school for a pro career.
“At that time, they kept giving me a lot of pressure, but I kept insisting I want to go to Europe. My family was so furious,” he said. “They were like ‘Lalas really, we’ve always wanted you to go to school. If you have this opportunity to come to the US on a full scholarship, you shouldn’t waste that.’ ”
His success in college, which included an Atlantic 10 Championship in 2015 and getting named A10 Defensive MVP in 2016, got the attention of MLS teams and made him the No. 5 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft by Columbus.
That would prove to be a fortuitous turn of events. Ten days before Abubakar was drafted, the Crew had signed Ghanaian national team centerback Jonathan Mensah. Mensah was a national hero in Ghana after starting at the World Cup in 2010 and 2014. Mensah’s stalwart defending as a teenager in 2010 helped the Black Stars advance out of the group stage, and progress all the way to the quarterfinals, knocking out the United States along the way.
In the seven years before he was drafted, Abubakar had only seen Mensah on TV. “I’ve been watching all these guys, but they didn’t know me. Jonathan was, honestly, my favorite player,” he said.
Now, he would be playing with him every day.
“It’s amazing to play with them. When I signed for Columbus, I told Jonathan ‘I’m one of your biggest fans,’ ” Abubakar said. “And then we became really close friends, like brothers, with Jonathan and with (fellow Ghanaian national-teamer) Harrison Afful. And now I call Mensah my big brother. We love each other.”
Mensah became best friend, big brother, and mentor to Abubakar — pushing him in practice, showing him new tricks, and advising him on what he needed to do to take the next step toward the Ghanaian national team. In 2017, one of those earlier steps was realized, as Abubakar was called up to the Ghanaian under-20 national team, the so-called “Black Satellites.”
The irony of playing on a team with his personal hero was that Mensah was also partially blocking the path for Abubakar to get first-team minutes with Columbus. Although he got a good chunk of playing time in 2018, a deep defensive corps that included veterans Gaston Sauro and Josh Williams kept Abubakar from becoming an everyday starter. That made for a bittersweet moment when Abubakar was informed that he had been loaned to the Colorado Rapids.
On the one hand, he would leave behind his close friends and compatriots, Afful and Mensah. On the other, a path was clear to a starting role. It was another dramatic twist in the career of the young player.
Abubakar explained: “After I had a meeting with the Columbus Crew, Mensah was the first guy I called. I say ‘Jon, my big bro, I got traded to Colorado Rapids.’ You know what he said? ‘Bro, I’m really happy for you. Every time I see you, you work so hard every day in training, but you don’t get an opportunity to play. I’m really happy for you. You’re going somewhere to play.’ Even though I’m going to miss them, I’m really happy to change my environment and get a new challenge.
Abubakar ‘s ultimate goal is to join the Ghanaian national team, and he’s been keeping in contact with the club, including coach Kwesi Appiah; the two met when Appiah visited Columbus in 2017.
Although he was not selected for the squad this summer that will contest the African Cup of Nations, he knows he’s close. “I’m just going to keep playing well and doing well. And when the right time comes, they’re going to call me,” he said.
As a loan player, Abubakar’s future in Colorado is anything but certain. He isn’t sure if it’s going to become home or just another weigh station on his soccer path. Will he soon be back in Columbus, traded to another MLS team or off to his childhood dream of playing in Europe? After just six weeks in Commerce City, he has barely had a chance to get out and see Denver or try a restaurant.
For now, he’s more than happy in Colorado.
“We have a great locker room. I love to go out and battle for these guys. We are developing a very good relationship and a chemistry, the whole team, and especially along the backline. The most important thing is communication,” Abubakar said. “The the communication along the back four and Tim is just incredible.”
He believes this team is poised for success; Lalas has an optimism that makes you instantly forget how dire the situation was when he arrived, when the team was in dead last with just two draws and eight losses. “If you look at (our) attacking players, they score a goal every single game. So for me, the biggest part, if we can stop the other team from scoring, we can win every single game,” he said.
Whether that comes true, Abubakar is confident amidst the uncertain future of being on loan. He’s going places, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all.
Source: By MARK GOODMAN | Special to The Denver Post