Red Fox to Red Bulls: Samad Bounthong’s Journey to Professional Soccer

For some, life’s journey comes at you fast. Even the best laid plans are sometimes tossed aside. Opinions change, goals come and go, and desires waver. 

One’s vision and path is not often so clearly defined and so profound as it is in the life of Samad Bounthong.

Samad Bounthong is a senior at Marist College who finished up his final season with the men’s soccer team in the fall. Samad Bounthong is also a rookie defender coming off his first professional start for the New York Red Bulls II of the United Soccer League — just touching distance from America’s premier division of men’s soccer, Major League Soccer (MLS). 

It’s a transition into an entirely new life before his prior one had even come to a proper close.

But this was always the goal for Bounthong, a player who has, his entire career, sought the best opportunity for himself to grow. Bounthong grew up in Seattle and began his soccer career in the Seattle Sounders Academy, playing through their ranks until he was 15-years-old. After joining the Sounders u-16 academy squad, he was cut from the team. 

“That year I got cut, my parents were getting divorced. My dad ended up moving to New Jersey and he asked me if I wanted to come try out for the Red Bulls.”

Not the most desirable journey, but it ultimately became the best decision for Bounthong’s young career. He made the u-18 team with the Red Bulls and was a major part of the best youth sides in the United States leading up to his college career.

“I ended up staying an extra year because I wasn’t getting the scholarships I wanted from these colleges,” Bounthong said. So, he stayed in the academy for the 2015-2016 season, starting 16 games and appearing in 23. With those midfield minutes he scored 11 goals, good enough for third-best on the team and just behind another 2020 New York Red Bulls II signing, Barry Sharifi. 

Finally getting an attractive offer from Marist College, Bounthong became a member of the Class of 2020, beginning his career in Poughkeepsie in the fall of 2016. Something was different about him, though, than your average Division I soccer player. Marist head coach Matt Viggiano said it comes down to intangibles and the vision Bounthong has always had for his career.

“There’re guys that are just as talented as him that just don’t have that desire or work ethic. The fact is, he’s always wanted to be a pro,” Viggiano said. He references the culture shift his program has experienced in the past two to three years: a team of college students who also play soccer, to a team of developing soccer players who happen to hone their craft at a college program. 

College was always a stepping stone for Bounthong, and it wasn’t a mystery to anyone else. Was going pro something he talked about often?

“All the time,” Viggiano said. “All the time.”

Bounthong encapsulated his entire mentality with one blasé comment. 

His team had fallen in a heartbreaking MAAC semifinal affair to Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City. After giving up the first goal to the regular season champions, the Red Foxes clawed back to take the lead. In the final 10 minutes of the match, the Peacocks were able to find two goals to sink Marist’s season, and postseason dreams.

That’s the final game Bounthong played for Marist, a devastating and crushing blow…for most. 

Not immune to emotion nor indifferent towards his college career, it was Bounthong’s laser focus and clear vision that prevailed in that time. 

But as a sort of side-comment, Bounthong mentions that the very next day after that loss he was out on the field training on his own. And then every single day after that. 

His journey to combines and trials started at that moment. From that point in November 2019 until roughly a month ago, Bounthong was on a great American tour of professional soccer. From a combine with the Charlotte Independence to trials with the Portland Timbers II, Indy Eleven, Colorado Switchbacks, Charleston Battery, and LA Galaxy II. 

The only call he got back was from the Galaxy, the most prestigious and recognized organization in MLS. By that point, though, he was already in the midst of preseason with the Red Bulls organization where he was on trial. 

After signing his first professional contract two weeks before the USL season kicked off, he shed the typical stressors of the onset of the spring semester, classes, exams, etc. His mission had taken a new, massive step along the path he envisioned for himself. 

As his classmates and fellow Red Foxes went back to school, Bounthong’s new task became learning a new position. As a midfielder his entire college career, he was always an offensive threat. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Confrence’s First Team featured his name each of the past two seasons. His junior year he was the team’s leading goal-scorer, putting in six en route to a painful MAAC Semifinal exit to Quinnipiac on penalty kicks. 

A pivotal part of the offense for one of the perennial powers in a highly competitive soccer conference — and he starts his first professional game at left back. 

“What’s funny is, we told him for years, ‘if you’re gonna go pro, you’re gonna be an outside back,’” said Viggiano, and echoed by his assistant, Rob Esposito.

Red Bulls fans should actually look for Bounthong to be a mainstay on the right side of the defense as opposed to the left, as new first team signing Mandela Egbo started on the right in Bounthong’s debut, but most of his playing time will come with the MLS squad. 

Despite being a new signing to the second team, Bounthong already has a path to MLS in his sights.

Detailing the competition within the Red Bulls organization at left back, is homegrown player, John Tolkin; first round draft pick, and current first team starter, Patrick Seagrist; and the newest MLS signing from France in Jason Pendant who Bounthong described as “really, really good technically and super aggressive.” But Bounthong is going to put everything he has into competing for the first team’s right back position. 

“Me and [Egbo] could really compete for that MLS spot,” he said. The starting right back spot is currently occupied by Kyle Duncan who played some of the best soccer of his professional career in the first team’s opening two MLS matches. 

The competition is aplenty, but Bounthong’s confidence and willingness to fight for every inch is what’s gotten him to this point in his career. With every word he speaks it is clear: he only has plans to up the ante.

Since starting in that debut match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, things have gotten a bit unusual. With the outbreak of COVID-19 and its expansion to the United States, just about every athletic competition has decided it irresponsible to continue play, with or without fans. MLS and the USL made that decision on March 12, suspending their seasons which had only just begun. 

The suspension was originally to last for a minimum of 30 days, though it looks like Bounthong may have to wait much longer to get on the field for another match of any kind. Having spoken with him just hours after the suspension announcement, not much was clear — not that it’s any clearer now. 

“A few days [before the announcement] people stopped shaking hands, it became just a dap-up with the fist or an elbow tap… we don’t really know what’s going on here,” he said of the environment around the training facility.

Until such a time that the fog clears and play is resumed, Bounthong will be working out on his own and making sure he doesn’t lose a single step. He’s also finishing up some of his last few classes online for his bachelor’s degree, a goal that he is set to accomplish in the fall semester. 

Despite the distractions, Bounthong’s vision is as clear as ever.

“By the end of this season, my goal is to earn that MLS contract,” he said. It’s a distinct goal with no if’s and’s or but’s about it. 

If there is anything Samad Bounthong has been able to prove throughout his career, it’s that he can make it happen.

Soccer fans — write this name down.

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine

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