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Rainbow Connection: How Young Cameroonians Are Getting to MLS

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A look at the young wave of Cameroonian talent entering MLS, and the club that is determined to get them there.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Unfamiliar names show up in preseason all the time.

As teams try to firm up their rosters for the upcoming seasons, they offer spots to trialists to see if they'll fit in the club's system. Many times these are older players trying to squeeze out one more season in top-flight football, young guys who are trying to find the right situation, or players that are just trying to find a fit somewhere.

For the 2015 Red Bulls Anatole Abang fit in that second category. Coming into 2015 he was a near unknown besides being 18 years old and a forward. It was speculated that he could make the team given a lack of options outside of Bradley Wright-Phillips, or if he were cut he could be signed by NYRB II, the Red Bull's USL team.

Abang joined the Red Bulls preseason roster on Jan. 31, four days after one of the most bizarre transactions the RBNY has ever effected: the Ambroise Oyongo trade.

Like Abang, Oyongo came from Cameroon and was part of the same club, Rainbow FC Bamenda, that brought both players to MLS. I attempted to make sense of the Oyongo situation at the time (at the time of writing he is still indefinitely suspended by the Montreal Impact), and had written about the apparent "entity" that brought Oyongo to MLS and how he had been caught in a mess.

Since that time, Anatole Abang has made the New York Red Bulls roster, appeared in three MLS matches, gotten himself a wikipedia page, had his former club reach out to Once a Metro, made his first MLS appearance as a substitute against Sporting Kansas City, and scored his first professional goal for NYRB II.

Its a fantastic story of an out-of-nowhere prospect making his mark, but also part of a larger one: that of a club trying to make its mark in Cameroon, while also exporting top talent around the world.

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The Players

Anatole Abang is not the only player to transfer to MLS this season from Rainbow FC Bamenda. Eric Ayuk, 18, joined the Philadelphia Union this year from the same club.

Nor is Abang the only player on RBNY's to have transferred from Rainbow FC. Marius Obekop followed the same route to MLS and the Red Bulls, and he is helping Abang make the adjustment to life in the United States.

Abang and Obekop are not just teammates, they are countrymen and speak a common language. Abang has cited Obekop as a teammate that has gone out of his way to help him. For this piece, Obekop translated questions for Abang so his story could be told.

"I ask [him] as soon as I need some help. We stand together and [my teammates] do everything to push you forward," Abang through a translator, said to Once a Metro. (Credit and thanks to LionIndomptable.com for help with translation for this piece. Check out their coverage of Cameroonian football and players including Abang.)

"I KNOW I CAN RELY ON MY CAPTAIN AND MY COACH IF I HAVE A PROBLEM." -Anatole Abang

Veteran French defenseman Ronald Zubar was also credited by Abang as a major influence in the locker room: sharing a common language in a world full of foreigners has given him a role model to look up to; more importantly, Zubar's presence has allowed him to feel comfortable asking questions.

Abang refers to the Red Bulls as his family, saying the camaraderie in the team has eased his transition.

"Guys take me under their wings and I know I can rely on my captain and my coach if I have a problem," Abang said.

"Here in NJ, everybody takes care of the players and trusts you, letting you play. It affects me a lot since in Cameroon, when a player is injured, he is set aside. A player needs to be 'pampered' in order to show what he is able to do on the field."

Abang isn't the only Red Bull to reference the team as his family. When speaking to Once a Metro, Marius Obekop used the same word to describe how the team has taken him in. Obekop was re-signed before the season started, marking his third season in the Red Bulls organization.

"When you feel comfortable with some people it makes me feel like I’m in Cameroon sometimes because I have my family here," Obekop told Once a Metro.

In addition to feeling like a family, the Red Bulls have provided Abang and Obekop with apartments and English teachers to ease their transition into the United States.

Although, Abang and Obekop will tell you the most memorable thing they have received from the Red Bulls is equipment.

"In Cameroon, there is a lack of shoes and equipment so that it's difficult to show what you can do on the field. Here, you're given everything," Abang said.

"It is much better to play soccer here," Obekop added.

"In Cameroon its a little bit difficult because you don’t have all of that stuff. You have to pay with your own money and the money you get, and [what you get is] not enough."

MY FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE UNITED STATES? FOOTBALL. FOOTBALL AND THE PLAYERS HERE ARE LIKE A FAMILY-Eric Ayuk

Fellow countrymen Eric Ayuk echoed Abang and Obekop's assessment, adding that unlimited access to quality playing surfaces was another positive change.

"The biggest change is in the US [the soccer] is more stronger and physical," Ayuk said to Once a Metro.

"There is a difficulty to train [in Cameroon], but here we have more chances to play with good fields, opportunities to play."

Ayuk's journey to MLS was not as straight forward as his compatriots. He was in Rainbow's system in 2011, and the next year moved to Thailand to play professionally.

"[Rainbow] gave me the chance to play in Thailand, and I thank the manager and the coach and the fans to bring me there and play," Ayuk said.

In Thailand, Ayuk confided in another Cameroonian player, as he toiled thousands of miles away from home. Ayuk said the other player was "like a brother" to him, without whom he would not have been able to last so far away from home.

"We met together there in Thailand so we had each other and I am very thankful for him for supporting me, for helping me."

It was during these three years that Ayuk was spotted by the Philadelphia Union, and the next chapter of his footballing career was written. In 2015, Ayuk has made two substitute appearances for the Union, and made his first start in Week 5 against Sporting Kansas City.

"The players on the team make me so happy to be here, because all the team gives me support and encouragement and they speak to me," Ayuk said of his teammates.

"My favorite thing about the United States? Football. Football and the players here are like a family and they treat you like everyone. I was so happy to be here."

The Club

Abang, Ayuk, and Obekop may be adjusting to life in the United States, but 5600 miles away a football club was fighting for promotion and its reputation.

If you haven't heard of Rainbow FC Bamenda, I don't blame you. The club has virtually zero online presence, and is working towards promotion out of the Cameroon North West Regional League.The club was founded in 2010, and is owned by a group of individuals who would prefer not to disclose their names. According to Blaise Yoye, the team manager, Rainbow is trying to change the soccer landscape in Cameroon for the better.

(Rainbow FC before a match in Douala, Cameroon)

"We have invested a lot of money. We are a club that has no sponsorship, we have no money from the Cameroon sport association: everything has been invested from our pocket," Yoye told Once a Metro.

"Because we understand talent we find the best players. We don’t find them because we have the most money; we find them because we have the best scouting setup.

"I know it is difficult to find information on our club because the competition is poorly organized and our regional club which is not covered. And the only way to find information on our team is through our website, which we are still building."

Yoye says Abang played a full year at Rainbow FC, appearing in 18 matches before joining the New York Red Bulls. He had actually been scouted by the organization for three years, starting when he was 15.

Once Abang was discovered by Rainbow scouts, he would travel to Rainbow for camps, but stayed in Yaounde to develop in an environment that would not impact his studies.

"Cameroon is a bilingual country and he is French-speaking and Rainbow FC is in an English part of the country," advises Yoye.

"Abang’s hometown is 500 km away from Bamenda. He played for [another] year and we followed his development and we realized he was very good. In an arrangement with our partner club, we sent him back to us because we realized he was ready to become a professional footballer."

Rainbow FC uses its "four influential board members," to forge relationships with other clubs in Africa, widening the playing pool that it can survey.

According to Yoye, not all players registered from Rainbow come from the club directly, but train with Rainbow at various times, and continue to play with "partner clubs" throughout the continent.

A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE JEALOUS...AND ARE NOT HAPPY. WE DO WHAT WE ARE DOING AND WE DO IT CORRECTLY TO EVERY LETTER OF THE LAW -Blaise Yoye, team manager of Rainbow FC

One example of this partner club arrangement is Frank Acheampong, currently playing for Anderlecht in Belgium (Sacha Kljestan's team before he moved to RBNY). Acheampong played for Berekum Chelsea in Ghana before moving to Buriram United in Thailand. Acheampong never played for Rainbow FC, but through their connections his transfer was facilitated, and eventually he moved to Europe.

Rainbow FC is owned by Rainbow Sports Investments, a sports holding company. It is part of the larger Rainbow World Group, described on LinkedIn as a "a diversified Holding company with interest in Sports, Media, Trading, Telecoms, Mining and Real Estate."

"A lot of people are jealous of [what we do] and are not happy," Yoye said.

"We do what we are doing and we do it correctly to every letter of the law."

Throughout our conversation, Yoye reiterated that Rainbow FC is independent from Rainbow Sports Investments. But around the time Rainbow FC players started arriving in MLS, Rainbow Sports Investments was setting up exhibitions for Cameroonian players to be seen by scouts.

Trevor James, head of Scouting with the Chicago Fire, detailed a scouting trip to Cameroon, on behalf of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2012. That trip was set up by Rainbow Sports Investments, James told Once a Metro.

"It was a group called Rainbow Sports [who set it up], and I guess now they have a club there," James said.

"The people put us in a nice hotel, there was transport that took us to places to eat, and we were well looked after. We saw two full days of games in two different cities in Douala and Yaounde and where they had probably four to five full games. The games were quite good standard."

James mentioned that the Earthquakes almost signed a player after the trip, but the details could not be agreed upon. Three months later Charles Eloundou signed with the Colorado Rapids on loan with an option to buy.

In the past two years, Rainbow FC has done well in the North West Regional League, but failed at its bid for promotion to Elite Two, the Cameroon second division. According to Yoye the team has played in the Cameroon Cup as well, and has top flight ambitions.

The Future

Despite the questions surrounding Rainbow FC, the talent it is sending to the league is undeniable.

Since Eloundou joined the Rapids, Yazid Atouba, Ambroise Oyongo, Marius Obekop, Anatole Abang, and Eric Ayuk have played in MLS. There could be up to three or four players joining the league next year.

"As long as we have good players MLS scouts will like them. MLS is a league looking for talent," Yoye said.

"We don't have any formal arrangement with MLS. We don't have a mandate. We have contacts with many MLS clubs, and we will continue our relationship by providing players that we think are of the standards of MLS."

As for the players in the league, their main goals remain showing the fans that they belong in MLS, and of course making the most out of their opportunity.

"It's a great league. I want to give all the best of myself because this is a good group of people," Abang said.

"I would like to thank my coach for his confidence, I won't disappoint him. It was a pride to play for the spectators."