CARBONDALE — Former Carbondale Community High School student Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal completed his meteoric rise in the soccer world by making his Major League Soccer debut for Sporting Kansas City on May 27th.
At the ripe old age of 19 years and 255 days.
"Before going in I was pretty nervous, but it was a good type of nervous, because you’re excited for this moment," Wan Kamal said. "You waited and trained all your life for that moment and it finally happened. It actually took two or three days for it to hit me that I was able to do this at age 19."
Wan Kamal’s rise from academy developmental amateur to professional took only 20 months from the time he signed with Sporting KC at the beginning of August in 2016. Wan Kamal, who goes by the name Kuzain and tops out at 5-foot-10, 140 pounds, had just been elevated to the 18-player game-day squad. He entered the game at Children’s Mercy Park against the Columbus Crew SC with three minutes remaining as an injury replacement for midfielder Roger Espinoza.
"Making the 18-player game-day squad was a big surprise because Sporting KC is currently in first place in the league," Wan Kamal said. "I was happy to just make the 18, but the coach told me before the game ‘Just to be ready’. Then in the fourth minute a starter got hurt and the coach told me to warm up ‘Just to get ready’. It was like, ‘Holy crap’, I might go in right there, so that was pretty exciting. But he was able to continue, so I had to wait."
When he entered the game he became the eighth youngest to play a regular-season game and the second-youngest homegrown player in Sporting KC’s history. "Homegrown" players are ones that come through Sporting KC's three-tier farm system.
“We were playing before a packed stadium because it was Retro Night where they were honoring past players,” Wan Kamal said. “The game was tied 0-0 when I finally came on (in the 87th minute) and because they make a big deal about what they call their homegrown players I got a standing ovation, which was crazy, because I was the first KC player to climb the ladder going from the academy to the B Team and all the way to the senior team. It was a special moment and I really didn’t care what happened after that. However, what did happen was I didn’t get a chance to take a shot or score the winning goal, which would have been nice."
Wan Kamal didn’t score or take a shot, but the center midfielder completed 8 of 9 passes. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.
Wan Kamal made history again at Minnesota United FC a week later. He entered the game at the 18-minute mark when midfielder Yohan Croizet went down with a hamstring injury, and 17 minutes later, he not only scored his first MLS goal, but it turned out to be the game-winner in a 4-1 win.
"I saw (Graham) Zusi get the ball on the wing with time and space and all week long we have been talking about getting into the box and making runs," Wan Kamal said. "I saw our forward make a run, so there was space at the top of the box, so I just sat there and the ball came and I made good contact with it and it went in."
Wan Kamal made his first start June 6 at Real Salt Lake, joining former Sporting KC Academy players 16-year old Gianluca Busio, 18-year old Jaylin Lindsey and 21-year old Daniel Salloi. It was the first time in Sporting KC history it had three teenagers and four homegrown players on the field at the same time.
"It was great to start my first game," Wan Kamal said. "It was in the (Lamar Hunt U.S.) Open Cup, which is a special tournament that every team always tries to win. We are in the round of 16 now, so we are looking to win it all."
He played 83 minutes, and while he didn’t take a shot, he drew attention and was fouled four times. He also committed one foul. Four-time Open Cup and defending champion Sporting KC won the game 2-0.
Wan Kamal attended CCHS from 2014-17 but didn't play on their boys team. He decided to play club ball in 2011 with one of the best teams in the country, St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club.
"Scott Gallagher introduced me to a whole other level of soccer, and from there, a whole lot of doors opened up," Wan Kamal said. "The only negative about Scott Gallagher was that two-hour drive to practice on my parents."
During his five years playing for Scott Gallagher, Wan Kamal demonstrated his potential by representing the USA as a member of the Under-17 National Team in 2015. He also trained in the Netherlands at the prestigious Feyenoord Academy, the youth academy of the professional football club Feyenoord in Rotterdam.
"I started with Scott Gallagher when I was 12, and when I was 15 or 16, St. Louis got its pro team, so I was also able to train with them," Wan Kamal said.
During the 2015-16 Developmental Academy season with Scott Gallagher, Wan Kamal appeared in 27 games, scoring eight goals.
"If I had to describe my play I would say I’m a quick and technical player who likes to dictate the whole game by being always on the ball and creating chances," Wan Kamal said. "One word for that kind of player is maestro."
He joined Sporting KC Academy in August as an academy player and on Aug. 18, 2016, he signed an contract with Sporting KC’s minor league team – the Swope Park Rangers of the United Soccer League. It allowed him to maintain his college eligibility, as he committed to the University of Akron in 2017. He passed on playing for the Zips when Swope Park offered him a USL contract worth $40,000 a year for four years plus incentives. It also had a clause that would pay for his college expenses, should he choose to go sometime in the future.
He became the first Malaysian player to compete in the USL (his parents are from Malaysia and moved to Carbondale when his father began studying at SIU), and appeared in 13 games with Swope Park, starting nine. He led the team in passing accuracy at 91.3 percent. Nine months later, he made the Sporting KC 30-player active roster. He signed his first MSL contract on April 12. It took him six games to make the 18-player game day squad.
"I got a guaranteed contract, which is really rare," Wan Kamal said. "I have three guaranteed years and two option years with a base salary of $67,500 a season and a lot of incentives above that."
Wan Kamal was the ninth homegrown talent to sign a MLS contract with the parent team since the team began play in 1996. He was the second youngest make his professional debut, at the time, behind Erik Palmer-Brown, who was 17 years and 24 days old.
"They have a ritual when something big happens, like when a guy makes his debut or scores his first goal," Wan Kamal said. "We do a tunnel thing where the players and the staff form a tunnel and you have to run through it as fast as you can as everyone slaps you on your neck and back. Let’s just say I left that practice with a couple bruises."
Soccer is a family tradition for Wan Kamal. His father, Professor Dr. Wan Kamal Napi, owns and coaches the Southern Illinois Futbol Club Force. His older brother, Wan Kuzac, played soccer at CCHS and his younger brother, Wan Kuzri, also is a soccer player.
"My two fondest memories of starting soccer are when my older brother, who is seven years older than me, would have games on the weekends when he played for Sting United and the Carbondale rec league, and I was always out there kicking a ball with him," Wan Kamal said. "When my dad was in college, SIU had the Tournament of Nations soccer tournament and I was always trying to kick it around with the older guys. So my fondest memories are of being a nuisance and kicking the ball around everywhere."
In middle school, he also ran cross country and played basketball. He followed his brother onto to the links, attending golf clinics at Hickory Ridge Public Golf Course. He wanted to continue with golf or tennis, he said, but wanted to commit to soccer. Playing academy soccer in St. Louis and for the Terriers wasn't allowed, according to a rule instituted at CCHS his freshman or sophomore year, he said.
"Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like playing before friends and family, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change a thing because all the memories I created and all the doors that were opened to me have been unreal," he said.
Wan Kamal still dreams of playing at an even higher level after breaking through in the MLS.
"Hopefully one day I will move to Europe and play at the highest level possible and maybe a World Cup one day, but at the end of my career I just hope to be remembered as someone who’s from Carbondale, and as long as you’re willing to put in the work you can make it in whatever you want to do," he said.