Brian Bliss remembers the first time he noticed David Accam, the kind of accidental revelation you can’t forget. It was late 2014, September or October as he recalls, and the former Chicago Fire technical director was supposed to be watching another player all together.
Chicago’s then-head coach, Frank Yallop, knew about a player in Sweden, Kennedy Igboananike, with whom he had crossed paths in a preseason once upon a time, and he had Bliss watching film on the forward.
“Look, scouting is sometimes a skill, a knack, and sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time,” Bliss said recently. “We were already starting to put the wheels in motion for some next-season moves that we were making and we were scouting Kennedy as a possibility.
“I was watching a lot of video on players and I had stumbled across a game where AIK was playing Helsingborgs, where David was playing. I’m watching the game and my eye kept going to the other guy on the other team and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m not supposed to be watching him, I’m supposed to be watching our guy.’ That kind of thing. By the end of the first half I’m like, ‘Forget Kennedy, let’s get this guy.’ I brought him up to Frank, showed Frank some video and he’s like, ‘Great, let’s get him and let’s get Kennedy as well.’”
On Dec. 19, 2014, the Fire signed Accam, just a couple weeks after signing Igboananike. While Igboananike didn’t leave a lasting impression on the Fire organization before being traded away last season, his signing did play that small, unexpected part in this season’s success: putting Accam on the club’s radar.
Accam spent the past two seasons as the Fire’s most reliable attacker on last-placed teams and, as the team’s fortunes have improved this season, he has continued to rise. He netted his first MLS hat trick in June and was then called up for international duty with Ghana for the first time in nearly a year.
“I’ve learned a lot in Chicago,” Accam said afterwards. “My three years here, it’s been a difficult three years for me, but I’ve never given up. That’s the kind of person I am. I love challenges and for me I want to leave a mark in Chicago. Whenever I leave, I want to leave a mark in Chicago. I’ve done it in previous places I’ve been to and I think I haven’t done anything yet here so for me it’s just trying to leave a mark in Chicago.''
Just getting to a place where he could be scouted by the Fire was a journey for Accam.
''So it’s been a difficult road for me, but that’s David. He loves challenges and at the end I always come out bigger.''
Accam, born in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, loved the game from an early age, but his parents weren’t always sold on David’s dream of making it as a professional soccer player.
''They didn’t really like soccer because when I was growing up," Accam said. "In Ghana at that time most people thought soccer players are just illiterate and so they didn’t want their kids to play it, but now it’s different."
He began his career with the Right to Dream Academy, the same system that produced MLS players like Dominic Oduro, Emmanuel Boateng, and 2017 SuperDraft top pick Abu Danladi, among others here and around the world.
''When I was a kid I stood out everywhere I played. I played for one of the best academies in Ghana,” Accam said. “But also my parents wanted me to go to school, so I was always combining both so it was difficult. I know some of my friends were just playing soccer, soccer all day, but I was doing both … and I wanted to excel in both so it was difficult. Sometimes I’d fall back behind players, others I’d catch up. But I was always a good player, always.”
Accam’s time with the academy earned him a scholarship to Hartpury College in England, where he could both study and pursue soccer. While at Hartpury, Accam also played for small non-league English clubs, but still found himself without professional offers and wondered if his career was going anywhere.
“I was still 20 years old, in college, playing non-league, lower-league football," Accam said. “I just think, ‘Nah, I don’t think it’s going to work because I’m not getting the chances and I think I’m doing well. I’ve seen people that I think I’m better than still getting chances, they’re getting contracts, I’m not getting a good contract.’
"So I almost gave up. But I just kept it going, ‘Let me try for another year, see what happens’ and it works.''
His career picked up some momentum in early 2011, when Accam was selected as one of eight winners in Nike’s global talent-search competition “The Chance.” That earned him a spot with the Nike Academy team, a full-time program based in England for unsigned players, for the 2011-12 season. Accam’s professional break followed, coming thanks to a connection from his time at Hartpury College.
In early 2012, Accam had a chance to go on trial with a “top Norwegian club,” he said. Around the same time, Graham Potter, an englishman coaching Östersunds FK in Sweden’s lower professional divisions, got in touch. Potter, who had just gotten Ostersunds promoted from the fourth-tier Division 2 to third-tier Division 1, had previously signed Hartpury players and had a relationship with Accam.
“He called me [and said], ‘Hey David, I’ve seen you play, I want you to come and sign in Division 2, you don’t need a trial.'” … Now I was in the difficult decision of whether to go on trial or just go and take the contract,” Accam said. "I told myself, ‘I’ll just take the contract and start from there and see what happens.’
“So I went to Sweden Division 2 with Graham Potter and he’s a good coach, he shaped me a lot, he taught me a lot in Sweden. From there I started playing well and I had offers in the top league in Sweden.”
In March, 2012 he signed with Ostersunds, helped them win another promotion to the second tier, and by August he was on the move again up to Helsingborgs IF of the top flight Allsvenskan, in what was a record deal for a third-tier player. With Helsingborgs, Accam found himself appearing in the UEFA Champions League qualifying stage and the Europa League group stage, while domestically he finished third in the Golden Boot race his final season in the Allsvenskan.
By the end of 2014, he was rumored for another move out of Sweden and confirmed that he wanted to leave. There was talk of a multi-million dollar offer from Tigres in Liga MX, as well as interest elsewhere in Europe.
That’s when Bliss and the Fire came calling. During that first game on tape Bliss, now with Sporting Kansas City, noticed right away the thing that has become Accam’s calling card in MLS.
“Obviously pace is always the first thing that’s going to catch your eye,” Bliss said. “You don’t normally see someone that quick, and not only fast but fast running with the ball as well. There’s obviously two types of speed, there’s flat out running speed and then there’s speed with the ball and he had both.
"The other thing was he had a sense of, on the dribble, unpredictability. He could do things that broke the norm in terms of craftiness and deception and all that. Typical straight-line runners with the ball usually don’t have that craftiness and cutting ability and he had both. So that was a big draw to the kid.”
Once he arrived in MLS, Accam turned his pace into production and starred for the struggling Fire, winning Team MVP and Golden Ball awards in 2015 and 2016.
This year, with the Fire no longer in last place, Accam has only been better. With 14 goals and seven assists, Accam has eclipsed his previous MLS highs.
When Accam scored in a May 25 win over FC Dallas, he made a small mark on the Fire's history by becoming the first player to score in five consecutive matches. The hat trick in June made him just the seventh player in club history to achieve that feat.
“He has more support I think,” said Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic after that three-goal outing. “And then on his side I think he’s committed, he’s cleaner on the ball, when he has opportunities he has more hunger to finish and today was a perfect example of that.
“...I think he understands very well how to play with the team that we have now and with the teammates he’s surrounded with. We just have to work to give David opportunities and that he’s always fit for the game and then we expect that performances like this will come even more.”
Paunovic and Accam’s relationship seemed to hit a bump in the road midway through the season that threatened to end the player’s time in Chicago. Accam was surprisingly left off the MLS All-Star Game roster by his coach despite being among the league leaders in both goals and assists.
“I am disappointed because I think I played really well. Especially coming from your own coach, it makes it even worse,” Accam said at the time. “Personally, I know I’m doing well. I’ve scored 11 goals, seven assists this season. That is the pride I have. I’m doing well and I know I’m doing well even though I’m disappointed my coach ignored me, but I’ll still keep going.”
There were then reports of Accam submitting a transfer request and he was dropped from the starting lineup for a couple matches, but after coming off the bench and scoring against Sporting KC on July 29, Accam kissed the crest on his jersey. Then, before the summer deadline, the Fire picked up his option for next season in a move that seemed to at least temporarily end the rift.
“I have confirmed that the Fire are taking my option for next year, so for me that’s a good move,” Accam said. “It shows their commitment to me and that they really want me to be here. For me, I’m happy they have taken my option for next year, so I’m just concentrating on the team and helping the team win MLS Cup.”
While he seamlessly integrated himself with the Fire and plans to be in Chicago a little while longer, Accam’s life off the field in the Windy City has been relatively solitary.
“No, that’s the difficult part for me. Most of my family is back in Ghana or back in Europe and for me it’s been difficult in Chicago without family,” Accam said. “Sometimes you go down, you need some people around you but I don’t have it. I think I have some good teammates as well so they keep me company and when I have issues I just talk to them. So I’m mostly with my teammates, I don’t really have family or friends in Chicago.''
Accam said he’s trying to bring his family – his parents, two brothers and one sister – to the US, but it has been a “difficult long process.” He added that, “Every chance I get, I try to go home and see my family and stay with them.”
As much as he misses his family, Accam still boasts a jovial and joking personality when he is with his teammates.
“He’s a very good guy, he’s my kind of person,” Chicago center back João Meira said. “I like him because he’s humble. He’s like a brother. You know if you need him he’s there for you. He has charisma, he’s a strong personality and I like these kind of people. … He’s kind of a clown when you have confidence with him. He wants to play with you. I like him.
Meira said that after he joined the Fire last year, Accam would come over for dinner with Meira’s family or to play Playstation. They shared rides from the city out to Toyota Park, during which the forward had time to open up some about his path to the club.
“Sometimes when we drive we have time to talk and he told me,” Meira said. “He’s a fighter. … Now he’s in a good moment. He’s one of the [Designated Players] of the team and he deserves it.”
As Accam said earlier in the year, while he may make it look easy at times, he’s still very conscious of how hard it has been to get here. Nonetheless, he seems to be enjoying the success.
“I think some people that know me know that it’s been a difficult road for me to where I am, but others don’t know, they just see me play in MLS scoring goals and think, ‘He had an easy route here,’” Accam said. “But some people that are close to me know that it’s not been easy. It’s been a long road to where I am.”