When Tim Vom Steeg, the University of California Santa Barbara soccer coach, went to watch a high school kid from Ghana play in a local youth league match, his jaw dropped.
The scrawny kid had a well-cultured left foot that could do remarkable things with the ball. He also liked to time his slide tackles for maximum impact. And no one could catch him — his pace startled opponents.
Finally, the coach saw the kid was playing as a central defender. Whenever he won the ball in his defensive end, he would dribble 60 yards through both teams and score.
I said Wow, thats quite a centerback, said Vom Steeg.
As one of the starting central defenders for The Dunn School, Michael Tetteh, the Sounders top draft pick in the MLS SuperDraft, was the team’s No. 2 goal scorer. Before coming to Dunn, Tetteh was a goalkeeper for his academy team in Ghana.
But Tetteh left behind his goalie gloves when he arrived in the United States. Given a rare opportunity to escape crushing poverty and start new life, Tetteh also wanted a fresh start with the game he loved.
When Michael came to America, he had no interest playing goalie, recalled Mark Geriak, head soccer coach for Dunn School. It wasnt really until high school that he started playing on the field.
Tetteh wasted no time making his mark. Almost immediately, high school, club and college coaches knew he was special. He was raw, his right foot was weak, he didnt pass as much as should, but the kid could play. His pace, ball skill and imagination set him apart.
He is blessed with some unbelievable natural ability, Vom Steeg said. He could be one of the better players in the MLS.
Tettehs story goes beyond the pitch. His is a remarkable journey that saw him plucked out of an impoverished village in north-central Ghana and plopped into affluent America. A combination of talent and hard work moved him one step closer to his dream — a professional contract with Major League Soccer.
Along the way, Tetteh endured the loneliness of living in a foreign land (he has not seen his family for six years). He had to handle the tension of attending an affluent Santa Barbara private boarding school. The there was the pressure to perform if he wanted to be a pro.
He has found his way from utter poverty to Seattle, which is just a mecca for soccer in the U.S, Geriak said. Its such a wonderful story that has come together for such a wonderful young man.
Tettehs narrative has just begun. He still has to make the team. He has to adjust to the physical nature of the MLS. And he still has to fit into a team culture and the Sounders style. But the people who coached him believe it will work.
Tetteh grew up in a small village, Odumasi, a few hours northwest of Accra, Ghanas capital. More than a third of the countrys output is in agriculture, primarily cocoa. Jobs are scarce. Poverty is everywhere. His dad moved to Accra to find work. A non-profit organization called Right to Dream, charged with developing talented soccer players and educating them, advertised a tryout over the radio.
So I went, Tetteh said, 11 at the time. I was one of the 18 guys that were picked. I lived in the academy for six years. Obviously now the academy has expanded and theres so many things going on. But when it started it was just a few of us and we had to go through a lot of stuff.
But I was fortunate to have a good coach and a good staff. Everyone who was around us at that time was very, very impressive and has helped us, basically taught us everything that we knew. Right to Dream is what made me who I am today.
A big part of what Right to Dream offers is an education. The soccer academy is trying to develop pro talent for Europe and America, and the athletes who show academic promise are placed in top high schools in America or Europe. Thats how Tetteh made the 9,000 mile trek to Santa Barbara. He received a scholarship along with several of his classmates from Right to Dream.
For a 14-year-old, the sun-kissed shores of Santa Barbara looked like the promised land. But entering a world of wealth wasn’t easy. He was eating three meals a day in a private dining hall surrounded by students used to affluence. Jetting off to ski vacations in Aspen or the beaches of Hawaii were common school-break activities. He knew his parents and siblings were struggling to find work, shelter and food.
It truly is a culture shock, Geriak said. All of these boys are polite and humble. These boys were wonderful members of the community at Dunn, hard working and thoughtful, and in some ways, some of the best leaders weve had here.
While Tetteh took advantage of the social perks that come with a private boarding school, he also walked in another world. The Ghanians often took part-time jobs to earn money to send home to their families. Every summer, Tetteh worked soccer camps until pre-season started with the Gauchos.
At one point, Vom Steeg noticed that Tetteh and his Ghanian teammates looked thinner and seemed unexpectedly weak and tired. He learned they were skipping meals and sending most of their college meal money to their families.
Its different worlds, different cultures, Vom Steeg said. Wed give out meal money and they would send it home.”
Homesick after six years? Too bad. For Tetteh and the other Ghanians, the priority was sending the $1,300 stipend to help family survival, rather than buy a plane ticket to visit.
I think a kid like this wakes up every single day and knows he has been blessed, Vom Steeg said.
It appears that Tetteh has been blessed in many ways. But the biggest is his ability to manipulate a ball. According to Vom Steeg, Tetteh has tremendous change of pace. Hes able to push, cutback, and push again. He can literally lose anybody, he said. There is nobody who can stay with him if he successfully executes that sequence. What he can do with his left foot is remarkable.
For the Gauchos, Vom Steeg played Tetteh at center midfield, deploying him as a left back in a 3-5-2 formation, as a wingback in a 4-3-3 system and as an outside midfielder. He ended his college career playing left back.
He can really do a lot of damage on left-mid, if given some freedom, he said. When hes absolutely at his best is when hes able to take his first touch in space and run at people. At that point he is kinda unstoppable.
Tetteh needs to improve his play with his back against the defender and continue to develop his right foot, Vom Steeg said. Hes not comfortable with his back to the goal. We found that getting him the ball early is when hes at his best. And his left foot is so good, sometimes he would over-rely on it. Wed always get after him a lot about using his right foot. We talked to him about adding versatility to his game.
Vom Steeg believes the Sounders are perfect for Tetteh. The teams technical, attacking style of play suits his skills. He can fit well under Coach Sigi Schmids system, particularly as an attacking left back or left wing.
Sigi will improve a player’s game, he said. Hes had experience taking players and putting them in different positions. He knows the college game. Ive known Sigi for a long time. He drafts players that hes comfortable with. I know hes seen our team play quite a bit over the last three years. He knows whats hes getting. I think Michael will be able to step in and contribute right away.
Tetteh says his goal is to start. He knows there are quality players ahead of him.
With Seattles style of play, I think its going to be a very good fit for me and I could see myself going in and starting, he said. I am very, very excited.
For him and other Africans coming from poverty, going pro means his family will be living better. Im looking forward to moving on and doing things in my life, he said, because I have a lot of responsibility in my life to take care of. I havent seen my family in six years. I love them to death and everything, but theres just things I have to take care of.
“My goal is to go home this year to see them. I actually havent told them about whats happening. I havent told them I got a (professional) contract. I havent told them anything. They are going to be very, very excited for me and Im looking to the day that I go home and see them.