Kellyn Acosta: Put Some RESPEK On His Name
As a young black man with a slender 5’11”, 160 pound frame, Kellyn Acosta might not scream “professional athlete” if you were to unsuspectingly cross paths with him on the street. He’s got a love of fashion but only casually stunts wearing the designer clothing or exclusive streetwear that help us spot NBA or NFL players these days. He’s an all-star in his respective league but if you watch SportsCenter, you’re not likely to see him or his highlights regularly. But don’t let any of these eye tests deceive you. Kellyn could be one of the most important black athletes in America today.
Kellyn plays professional soccer for MLS’s Colorado Rapids and is a key member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Kellyn isn’t one of our most important athletes because he’s achieved global star status, not yet at least. What makes Kellyn so important is that he’s a prime example of what the future of American soccer might look like. Kellyn is part of a wave of young African American athletes that have chosen soccer over traditionally “black” sports like football and basketball, and it’s not as if there wasn’t pressure around him to play these sports either.
“I grew up in Texas where it's a little bit different. People played American football, and that’s the norm, but I got into soccer through my family and what made it exciting was that I kind of excelled at it from a very young age and obviously if you’re doing well at something you want to continue at it.” As he excelled, his talents earned him a spot on FC Dallas’ Developmental Academy team and he began to turn heads as a promising box-to-box midfielder, a player who could break down opponents attacks and then spring his team forward. This team, and the Developmental Academy program as a whole, takes elite young talent from ages 12 to 19 and tries to mold them into professional soccer players. Kellyn joined the program at age 13 and would go on to sign his first professional contract by the age of 16.
In addition to rising through the FC Dallas ranks, Kellyn’s performances in the developmental academy system helped catch the eye of U.S. National Team coaches from an early age. From the U14 national team all the way up to the senior national team, Kellyn’s involvement with U.S. Soccer has taken him across the world to three FIFA Youth World Cups and one CONCACAF Gold Cup. However, despite all the success he’s achieved in his career thus far, Kellyn had yet to be fully acknowledged. For both club and country, he has faced criticism and his talents have been overlooked by soccer fans who haven’t taken the time to analyze the circumstances surrounding the situations he’s found himself in.
At the club level, Kellyn is finally getting over one of the toughest stretches of his professional career, where an injury in late February required surgery and cost him his starting spot. “Going into pre-season I’m healthy, everything is going well, and then I had a setback with hernia surgery that put me out for a few months. I lost my starting spot, but rightfully so, and it happens. Guys step up, we’re doing well and I wasn’t playing top football.” It wasn’t until mid-late June that Kellyn felt back to 100% but once he regained full health, the opportunities being presented to him just weren’t the same as before.
After reflecting on this and what was best for his career, Kellyn made a very difficult decision. “July came around and things were kinda stale. I wasn’t progressing, kind of plateauing, and reflecting on how the year was going and the past year, and I thought maybe for me to get to where I want to be, maybe I needed a change of scenery.” He approached the front office about the possibility of a trade and was eventually sent to the Colorado Rapids. At the time of the trade, both regional and national media outlets such as ESPN wrote articles saying “Kellyn Acosta is hoping his move to the Colorado Rapids will help him recover the love of soccer he'd lost at FC Dallas,” which Kellyn found comical and totally out of context. “I didn’t lose my love for the game, I just needed something different as a reset because I was at FC Dallas since I was 12/13 years old and it just kinda got stale for me. I felt like instead of progressing I was at a standstill and I needed that change to get fresh air.”
Kellyn’s performance for Colorado and return to form are not only a testament to his quality as a soccer player, but also to his professionalism. “In an overall sense it revived me and brought me back to the national team. It gave me the fresh legs and the fresh start that I needed, the coaching staff is brilliant and my teammates have been brilliant. I never thought I would be in this position last year but that's kinda how football is, sometimes you have different paths and opportunities and this was the path I needed to travel to get back to where I wanted to be and I’m happy about it.”
At the international level, Kellyn was a member of the USMNT that collectively failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, causing some U.S. soccer fans to harshly cast him aside with the “old guard.” It’s as if these fans believe they’ve seen all he has to offer and prefer to give chances to a new wave of even younger players based in Europe such as Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, and Tyler Adams. But we need to remember Kellyn is still only 23 and was barely given the chance to prove himself under Bruce Arena’s system and the dominating presence of Michael Bradley. In looking to question and challenge this assertion, we spoke with Daryl Grove, co-host of the Total Soccer Show, who validated our thesis and expanded a bit further, stating, “If Bruce Arena had trusted Kellyn to start that game, we probably would have qualified for the World Cup. He was part of the roster, but not allowed to be a key part of it.”
As painful as the experience of missing out on a World Cup was, we shouldn’t recklessly cast aside all the players involved in that failure. Especially with a “new wave” of young and inexperienced talent, having someone like Kellyn in the squad can be an invaluable asset during the next World Cup qualifying cycle. As these young players assimilate themselves into the core of the USMNT, Kellyn hopes to secure a regular starting position and cement himself as a leader within the team. “Despite being young, I’ve already played professionally for six years. Six years is a long time, and I’ve been able to play in some big matches. I’ve played in the Azteca (Mexico City), which not a lot of people can relate to, and I want to use my experiences to help the group. I’m trying to make my mark but it's a huge opportunity where we’re all in the same boat.”
After putting these criticisms into context, it certainly appears Kellyn has deserved better from media and fans. Maybe some of his criticism also comes from a belief that to be an American sports star you need to be competing at the highest levels week in and week out for the biggest teams/clubs in the world. In this regard, who knows what the winter transfer window might have in store for Kellyn. He certainly has the talent and ambition to test himself in Europe someday but regardless of when/if Kellyn ever decides to make a move to Europe, maybe Kellyn’s greatest achievement will simply be using his platform and profile to inspire a generation of young African American kids, showing them that now more than ever, it’s possible to pursue a career in professional soccer. “Not everyone can be a football player or a basketball player so I think my story is really relatable. I’m hoping my story can inspire people and really help them get into soccer because people usually start with it but then don’t continue with it.”
In the African American community, more often than not, breaking through glass ceilings requires role models that make you believe a dream can become a reality. We discussed this topic as it relates to soccer with Donald Wine II, a friend of Black Arrow and board member for the American Outlaws, and he mentioned that “when it comes to black soccer athletes, there’s always a ceiling that needs to be broken. Whether that ceiling is low or high, I think Kellyn can help us break the current ceiling we have.” Kellyn recognizes the external pressure of being in that role and wholly embraces it, hoping to carry the torch and be the inspiration for others to come as those before him were for him. Of the list of African Americans legends in American soccer such as Cobi Jones, Eddie Pope, Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, and Jozy Altidore, to name only a few, Kellyn can still remember the player that motivated him and gave him hope of turning his soccer dreams into a reality. “Growing up I went to a lot of FC Dallas games and Eddie Johnson really inspired me cause he’s a guy I grew up watching play that looked like me. It was kind of tough following certain players like Ronaldinho and questioning if he’s black. He spoke another language, he’s got a lighter complexion and its all kind of iffy where you don’t really know the difference at that age.”
While nowadays we are seeing more and more young African Americans go directly to European teams and make their way through the ranks, we are also seeing more and more players making their way through the developmental academy ranks to reach the professional level and part of that credit must be given to players like Kellyn for serving as role models for what’s possible.
Hopefully far down the line when his playing career is over, he'll be able to look back at a legacy including various trophies but also something bigger than silverware. Perhaps there will be a generation of players that remember watching Kellyn play and wanted to grow up to be a professional soccer player just like him.
For any readers interested in keeping up with Kellyn’s journey, follow him on Instagram or Twitter via @kellynacosta and don’t forget to tune in for the upcoming U.S. friendlies versus Panama on 1/27 (ESPN2) and Costa Rica on 2/2 (FOX).
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