Houapeu hopes to complete Africa to MLS journey

UMBC senior excited for MLS Combine, prepared for physicality

Levi Houapeu is ready for his next challenge – becoming a professional soccer player in MLS. He’s come too far to give up now.

Born and raised in the Ivory Coast, Houapeu moved to Germantown, Md., when he was 12. A strong high school career in the D.C. suburbs preceded college at the University of Maryland (Baltimore County) campus.

While UMBC is far from a college soccer powerhouse, Houapeu has nonetheless turned some heads with two impressive years. He was one of the seniors invited to the MLS Combine in January, something he’s been preparing for since he received the invite.

“For the past month I’ve been training and working on different aspects of my game,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “I’ve been trying to work hard and stay fit since I got the call for the combine.”

At 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, he is a compact forward/midfielder with blistering pace and is a technically gifted player with excellent close control. His 30 goals over his junior and senior seasons is close to the top of the Division 1 national ranks over that span.

Houapeu first learned the game while growing up and playing in his native Africa.

“I used to play soccer on the street, in the neighborhood,” he said. “I would play against people older than me, five, six years older than me. So I would get knocked off the ball all the time.”

Despite being considerably smaller and younger than his early opposition, Houapeu said that those early games set the tone for the rest of his playing career. It instilled in him toughness as he had to pick himself up off the ground after being pushed around while playing against those bigger and stronger than him.

When Houapeu was 12, his father got a job at the Ivory Coast embassy in Washington, D.C., and he moved to the USA. He saw himself as a little different from the rest of his youth soccer counterparts in the States.

“My first impression of them they were big and physical, which was the same thing back home,” he said. “But I realized that my skills were a little bit better; I was a little bit more technical.”

As a college player, Houapeu has that same problem, going up against bigger and stronger opposition. The skill and touch developed early on continued to improve at that level, too.

However, it wasn’t until his last two seasons at UMBC that things really started to pick up in terms of his production. After a slow start, with just four goals and two assists in his first two years, Houapeu’s production shot up by leaps and bounds in his junior year.

Playing with D.C. United’s Super-20 team the summer before that year certainly helped his confidence, and before the season started he approached his coaches, letting them know he was ready for a bigger role.

“Coming into my junior year, I told my coaches that I was ready to step up as a leader and also a player,”
 he said. “I was motivated to become the best player I can be. I remember going back to UMBC, and for some reason I had a lot of confidence in myself.”

He delivered on that when back at UMBC, leading the nation in point total, scoring 15 goals and adding 13 assists.

Houapeu credited his time with D.C. United as a confidence-inspiring stint. Being able to don the jersey of a professional team carried over into that sensational season.

Following that act would be tough, but the next summer Houapeu played with Reading United AC, a PDL club team boasting a number of other collegiate stars, including Generation adidas signing Corey Hertzog and combine invite C.J. Sapong.

“The Reading team was the best I have ever played on," he said. "With the quality of players we had – Corey [Hertzog] from Penn State, Andrew Wenger from Duke, it was a really exciting team."

With the amount of quality on Reading, it also forced Levi to train harder and work harder for playing time. Unlike his time at UMBC, every training session was needed, as the coach would pick the best eleven – not slot him into the lineup automatically.

He responded, making eight appearances, and chipping in two goals.

Upon returning to UMBC for his senior year, things started out slowly. But as the season continued, Hoapeu soon warmed up, eventually finishing the season with another 15-goal performance. It included a first-round upset of Princeton in the NCAA Tournament, coming up short on penalty kicks against William & Mary in the second round.

Just over a week remains for last-minute preparations. Come next week, Houapeu will be one of many players hoping to impress in Florida and improve his draft standing.

He stands ready, eager to continue his career at the next level.

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