Bongi Hlongwane has had a rapid rise to MLS in just four seasons, from the fourth pick of the 2017 draft to an 18-year old rookie starter. It’s no wonder he was one of our 2018 Rising Stars nominees.
Bongokuhle ‘Bongi’ Hlongwane is from a small community in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. He speaks minimal English and has no official football training, yet at the age of 21, he signed with Minnesota United of Major League Soccer.
Hlongwane, who has been called up to the South African squad for two friendly against Guinea and France later this month, just began playing organized football when he was 18, and his ascent has been meteoric since then, hurling him from one new circumstance to the next with no warning.
The striker-slash-winger has never really had a comfort zone in his soccer career, either positionally [his MLS profile states ‘Preferred position: Unknown’] or team-wise, and appears content to go with the flow.
ESPN quoted Hlongwane as saying: “Growing up, I was always playing wherever. I used to be a defender, but I also played in midfield, as a winger, and as a striker. I used to be a goalie in some of the competitions we had at home.”
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Hlongwane got his first start for the Loons, although just his fourth appearance, in a 1-0 victory against the San Jose Earthquakes earlier this month. He played on the left flank rather than up front. Former coaches have been frustrated by Hlongwane’s propensity to wander, but Minnesota’s English coach Adrian Heath is the polar opposite.
“He moves at a breakneck speed, yet he also tries to collaborate and create with his colleagues. We like his raw abilities, but his football IQ is unrivaled “When Hlongwane joined in January, Heath was reported on Minnesota United’s website as stating.
But it’s an amazing story how Hlongwane, with just a few years of professional football under his belt, managed to make it to MLS at such a young age and apparently out of nowhere.
This season, Bongokuhle Hlongwane has made four appearances for Minnesota United. Getty Images/Richard Graessle/Icon Sportswire
Hlongwane, who is from rural KwaNxamalala, was an underappreciated talent until he was in his late teens. In his background, he has no academies, no competitive school leagues, and few qualified coaches.
“We were in school — Team A and Team B — I was playing in Team A [First, or Varsity, team],” he added, explaining that he and his colleagues would be the coaches for their school teams: “We were in school — Team A and Team B — I was playing in Team A [First, or Varsity, team].” We’d go instruct the other men what to do in their game for Team B.
“No one was teaching us if it was our turn to play. It was just the two of us. In school, we didn’t have a coach.”
Hlongwane was still playing in the fourth-tier SAB League on weekends with local amateur side Nxamalala Fast XI at the age of 13, encouraged by his father, who was a member of the same squad.
Five years later, after scouting him, South African Premiership club Maritzburg United promoted him to the first squad within a year, but he struggled to adjust to organized football.
Hlongwane was demoted back to Maritzburg’s reserves when Ernst Middendorp took over as head coach in November 2020, following a great start to first team play and a maiden, though unexpected, South African national team participation in 2019.
According to New Frame, the no-nonsense former Arminia Bielefeld coach was dissatisfied with Hlongwane’s lack of positional discipline, and Hlongwane acknowledged to ESPN that he was given a stern lecture.
He admits that the experience has made him a better player. Hlongwane quickly worked his way back into the first squad, and he quickly became an important part of new Bafana Bafana coach Broos’ plans.
Bongokuhle Hlongwane has eight caps for South Africa, scoring twice, notably in Bafana’s disastrous World Cup Qualifying campaign against Ghana. Getty Images/PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP
Despite his impressive speed and still-developing potential, he has only scored twice in seven games since the Belgian coach took over, including a goal against Ghana in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
His accomplishments drew the attention of Minnesota United, who have accepted him for the multifaceted player he is rather than asking him to change.
“No one is placing any pressure on me. Coach [Heath] is pleased with my performance “Hlongwane has zero goals in four games for Minnesota after scoring eight goals in 57 appearances for Maritzburg.
Hlongwane never planned to play in Prominent League Soccer, but when the chance arose, aided by a recommendation from Broos, he jumped at it despite heavy interest from major South African clubs, including Mamelodi Sundowns, the past African champions.
“I anticipated that maybe I was going to play for a great team in South Africa, but that didn’t happen,” he said of the opportunity to adjust to a new environment once again. Yeah, it was a no-brainer to pass them up for Minnesota.
“I played against the [South African] teams that came to me. Because I’ve lived in South Africa since I was a child, the only way for me to start anew was to go abroad.”
Hlongwane, whose primary language is isiZulu, says his teammates, notably Paraguayan attacker Luis Amarilla, have helped him feel at ease in Minnesota.
“The thing I miss the most about home is the cuisine. I can’t cook here, so I rely on takeout and other convenience foods. It’s a little different here than at home. I miss my family as much, yet America is a fascinating country “he said
During the international break, Hlongwane will be reunited with old friends. South Africa is preparing for friendlies against Guinea (March 25) and France (March 26). (March 29). Hlongwane is particularly eager to pit himself against the world champions, particularly after losing out on World Cup qualifying.
“We gave it our all in the Ghana match [a 1-0 loss that eliminated South Africa], but it wasn’t our day… I believe we should concentrate on the next games. We’re getting ready for the AFCON qualifiers in 2023 “Hlongwane said.
“I’m looking forward to playing France since I’ll be up against some of the best players in the world.”
The Stade Pierre-Mauroy, where Bafana Bafana will face Les Bleus, is the farthest thing from KwaNxamalala. Hlongwane’s scrappy beginnings, on the other hand, developed in him a brave attitude. So, despite the fact that he is living a dream that seemed unattainable just a few years ago, he will continue to plunge in head first.