United's N'Silu transitions to American life
WASHINGTON -- Over the years, plenty of foreign players have made their way to North American shores to further their careers in Major League Soccer. While many of the league's imports arrive from Latin American countries whose large immigrant populations provide cultural support and linguistic familiarity, occasionally a new arrival finds himself a true fish out of water, struggling to adapt to daily life in a totally new place. Count D.C. United striker Mawete Ange N'Silu, known simply as 'Ange' around the RFK Stadium locker room, among the latter.Born in Kinshasa, the teeming tropical capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, N'Silu's parents emigrated to Le Havre, France when he was just 2 years old. The rangy frontrunner worked his way up through the centre de formation, or youth academy, at local club Le Havre AC even after his family relocated to Paris when he was 15. He eventually earned a professional contract with Swiss side FC Le Mont, where he scored an impressive 25 goals in 31 matches last season.But none of that could prepare him for the jarring transition to life in the United States, a nation that, for all its recent progress in the game, remains an unfamiliar destination for many professionals around the world."Before I left, I thought it was a little strange -- so far away, whereas in Europe everything is so close," said N'Silu last week. "Soccer players are beginning to come to America but it still doesn't happen a whole lot."He arrived as a trialist at United's preseason training camp in Bradenton, Fla., in February and soon earned a senior roster spot. But his acclimatization was just beginning."The language is the biggest thing, obviously," said N'Silu. "In the beginning it was very difficult for me because I knew nothing of the language, knew nothing of the culture."Though he's found shared housing with two other Congolese expats, the unfamiliar surroundings of Washington, D.C. presented him with no shortage of challenges in everyday life, from riding the Metrorail system to grocery shopping. Meanwhile, in the professional sphere the quiet-natured N'Silu has had to rapidly learn the tactics, traditions and personalities at a new club.Thankfully for him, fate provided a priceless go-between: Andrew Jacobson, the 2008 United SuperDraft pick who spent his first professional season with French Ligue 1 side FC Lorient before joining D.C. earlier this year.Last year Jacobson endured a taxing cultural immersion of his own at Lorient, where he had little choice but to learn the local language in short order. As the only other United player with French language skills, he's helped N'Silu keep pace with the goings-on around him while the Congolese-Frenchman works to develop his understanding of English with classes and day-to-day exposure."[At first] I had to rely on Andrew to get anything done," said N'Silu. "Now that I'm beginning to understand the culture, I can understand the language, I feel a lot better now. I feel like I'm part of it now."N'Silu is still hesitant to express himself in English, but has made massive strides with his comprehension, despite the fact that the language's irregularities can be frustratingly convoluted for novices."Everyone in the world plays the game. So I think he's picked it up pretty well," said Jacobson. "It was maybe a struggle in the beginning, but I think he's really starting to understand what the team does."Some of the words, obviously it's going to take time, because in English, you use so many different words to say the same thing -- especially guys on the field: 'drop, get back, come home, stay home.' He might understand the word but it might not make sense. His flow is definitely a lot better than some would expect."With three league starts and a goal to his credit, N'Silu has steadily worked his way into the reckoning for a starting spot despite the tough competition among United's gifted strike force. After his arduous introduction to D.C., he's enjoying the capital city but knows that his performances on the pitch will determine whether it becomes his long-term home."Good players, good team and I feel like it's up to me: if I can pick up the culture, pick up the language quicker, it'll help my adaptation," he said. "Right now I'm not even a regular yet. I'm really focusing on working hard and getting that spot. From there, I can make decisions."I want to score as many goals as I can in all competitions, and help the team in any way possible. But I want to score deciding goals, the ones that are going to win games."