Asiedu’s incredible journey from Ghana to Atlanta United

Atlanta United draftee Anderson Asiedu (right) poses with his American family (from left to right), Todd Leong, Grace Leong, Erin Leong, Matthew Leong and Sarah Leong. (Photo courtesy of the Leongs)

Atlanta United draftee Anderson Asiedu (right) poses with his American family (from left to right), Todd Leong, Grace Leong, Erin Leong, Matthew Leong and Sarah Leong. (Photo courtesy of the Leongs)

The weight of “supposed to” can eventually be crippling.

Anderson Asiedu was supposed to never leave Ghana. But he did.

Asiedu was supposed to sleep on floor space provided by one of his coaches during one Christmas break. But he didn’t.

Asiedu was supposed to be too small to be drafted. But he was, by MLS champs Atlanta United, no less.

“Supposed to,” is nothing for a self-described small man with big dreams, a bigger heart and the love of his new family.

“We saved the best for last,” Asiedu said after Atlanta United selected him with the last pick of the first round of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday. “I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I can’t wait to prove who I am as a person. The humbleness in the locker room. The respect to the players who have paved the way for me to be in the same locker room.”

Asiedu, 22, grew up in a Dormaa Ahenkro, a small, poor village in Ghana. His father was a professional soccer player who wasn’t around much. He was raised by his mom. She cut his hair. She taught him about God’s blessings.

But she was taken from Asiedu when she was killed in a car accident when he was less than 10 years old.

“It helped me along the way, when she left,” he said. “I realized life isn’t about myself.”

He was raised by his grandmother in a house with no electricity. He said his family did what they could to help him, but he said they didn’t believe in him. His grandmother sent him to an orphanage because she couldn’t afford to raise  him.

“I never knew that I was going to make it to America,” he said. “Never.”

That “supposed to” of staying in Africa changed when Sylvers Owusu, an assistant coach at a high school in New Jersey, returned to his native Ghana on vacation to look for players. The coach started scouting in the city. But he was from a village and gravitated to the smaller areas. His aunt was headmaster of the school Asiedu attended.

Owusu watched a game on a dirt field at the school. Asiedu, 16 and wearing threadbare cleats, was playing against grown men.

Owusu loved Asiedu. After taking an exam to make sure he could handle the academics, it was arranged for Asiedu to fly to New Jersey and enroll in St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J. on a soccer scholarship.

At the school, students aren’t grouped by grade or age, so Asiedu, an 11th grader, often sat beside a seventh-grader named Matthew Leong.

Anderson Asiedu and Matthew Leong pose at school. (Courtesy of the Leongs)

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Leong was inspired by Asiedu, who would stand up before or after daily Mass and tell the students how God helped him to the U.S.

Leong went to his parents, Todd, a trader on Wall Street, and Grace, who owns public relations firm in New York, to ask if they could help the boy he began to think of as his brother. Asideu’s shoes and clothes were old. Could they buy him some new things?

Todd and Grace Leong said sure and took the family, with Asiedu, shopping. A lover of bow ties – Asiedu wore one at the draft – the Leongs bought him his first.

The more they talked, the more they learned. The Leongs learned that Asiedu couldn’t go home to Ghana for Christmas. Instead, he was going to sleep on the floor at his coach’s place.

The Leongs invited Asiedu to spend the night.

One night turned into Christmas break.

That was 5 years ago.

Asiedu never left.

Over that holiday break, the Leongs learned about Asiedu’s mom. They learned about his village. The learned how he ended up in the U.S.

They were amazed.

They wanted to help, so they decided to sponsor him.

The boy who was never supposed to leave Ghana could now travel home.

Though he was almost 18, and too old to adopt, he became their son. He became an older brother to the Leong’s three children: Erin, Matthew and Sara.

“It was a miracle, man,” Asiedu said.

Asiedu fit into the family because it’s what he does. He met rapper Kevin Gates for the first time at a restaurant in L.A. and it turned into a 15-minute conversation while the Leongs looked on amazed. He trained with Carlos Vela, who told LAFC manager Bob Bradley they should sign him. Todd Leong shows selfies of Asiedu with Paul Pogba, Emmanuel Boateng and Jermaine Jones. Asiedu’s 15-minute interview with Atlanta United was the best the team had at the combine in Florida.

“He made a very good impression,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “He knows what he wants. Always with a big smile. Very positive. Also important. Good work ethic.”

People can’t help but be charmed by Asiedu.

“He’s small, but he’s mighty in the way he exudes enthusiasm,” Grace Leong said.

Asiedu also fit in with Leongs because they are a family that believes in hard work and sacrifice, which is one of the things that they said that Asiedu’s example reminds them of daily.

“He validated the fact that all you need is a dream and hard work and you can do anything,” Grace Leong said.

Asiedu won a championship at St. Benedict’s and earned a scholarship to Monmouth. But the soccer wasn’t good enough. Asiedu wanted a greater challenge.

He asked if he could look for a new school. It was June. Scholarships were gone. Undeterred, Asiedu contacted coach after coach.

“It was stressful,” he said. “Like right now.”

UCLA said it would give him a shot, but it was out of scholarships.

Asiedu didn’t care. The Leongs said they would help.

He walked onto the team. UCLA quickly found the money for a scholarship.

Another “supposed to” swept away.

“Everything he chooses to do his own decision, and he puts everything behind it,” Grace Leong said.

A defensive midfielder by size, skill and temperament, Asiedu played as an attacking midfielder at UCLA. Still, he played well enough over two years to earn an invite to the MLS Combine in Orlando.

He was named MVP. The Leongs didn’t know until Commissioner Don Garber said so when introducing him as Atlanta United’s pick Friday.

“The combine got me here today,” Asiedu said.

Still, team after team passed on him in Friday’s draft. Too small. Too old. Supposed to’s stacking up.

Asiedu doesn’t believe in “supposed to.”

It’s not how he was raised. It’s not ingrained in his personality. He is full of phrases: Trust the process. It’s all mentality.

He wants to replace “supposed to’s” with hard work and respect and see what happens.

“Wherever my momma is I know that she’s proud of me,” he said. “Ever since she left, I’ve never lost her. I worked hard to be the best I am. I knew I was going to be a blessed guy because I love people. I know that’s what we are here for. If you love and respect people, it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you do, God will make a way for you. You live by those principles, that’s why I have good people around me.”

Neither do the Leongs.

“We are the most fortunate people to be on the ride with him,” Grace Leong said. “People say to us, ‘He’s so lucky to have you guys.’ It’s the opposite. We are lucky to have him.

“He’s taught all of us and our family what’s important at the end of the day and what happens when you work hard, have dreams and make it happen.”