Photo courtesy Nick Tre. Smith / Swope Park Rangers
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – While he and his teammates are preparing for Monday night’s USL Cup, Swope Park Rangers midfielder James Musa couldn’t help but have an eye on another game half-a-world away on Friday night as his New Zealand teammates took on Peru in the first leg of an intercontinental playoff for a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
After the All Whites emerged with a 0-0 draw on home turf against their South American opponents, the stage is set for the second leg in Peru this Wednesday, a game Musa is optimistic about for his fellow countrymen.
“It’s very encouraging,” Musa said. “It’s always going to be a tough task, playing a South American team in the playoff, but to not concede an away goal at home is fantastic, it puts them in a good spot to go to Peru and try to get an away goal there and qualify for the World Cup.”
While he wasn’t selected for this week’s playoff, Musa’s successful season with the Rangers has put him back in the national team picture. He made two appearances for the All Whites earlier this year, a fulfilling feeling after having been absent from the side since making his debut in 2014.
“It means a lot,” said Musa. “It’s always an honor to represent your country at any level. I see it as a huge privilege. It was tough not making the squad the last couple of years, but I just kept plugging away and knew my opportunity would come, and now it’s about making the most of your opportunities.”
The road back to the national team began with what Musa describes as a ‘fresh start’ when he joined the USL’s Saint Louis FC prior to the 2015 season. Having been looking to make the move to the United States for a couple of year, getting the chance to arrive in Saint Louis for the club’s inaugural season provided exactly the platform Musa was looking for to re-energize his career.
“We just felt like Saint Louis was a good fit for me personally,” said Musa. “It was a new team, I spoke to all of the coaches, and to be honest it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Coming over here really kickstarted my career again, I’m very happy to be here.”
Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
Musa made more than 50 regular-season appearances for STLFC over two seasons before making the move to Swope Park this offseason. Despite suffering an early injury in preseason, Musa’s progression with in the club quickly escalated.
In midseason he was signed to an MLS contract with Sporting Kansas City, a testament to the work he has put in to raise Swope Park to another level this season. Personally, Musa also gives plenty of credit to an environment in which he has been able to thrive.
“The coaches have all showed me good faith from Day 1,” said Musa. “To be honest, I think they’ve made me a far better player than I was last year and the year before. Just my all-around presence on the field is a lot better and my knowledge of the game is better, and that’s just come from the coaching staff really.
“In terms of the teammates, everyone’s brilliant here. The level of training is very high, the quality of players is very high, there’s a lot of talent in this team, and there’s a lot of players to look out for in the future, I think.”
The leadership Musa has brought has been noticeable to his new teammates. One of the Rangers’ offseason additions that also included leading goal-scorer Kharlton Belmar and Lebo Moloto, both USL veterans in their own rights, Musa has formed a strong midfield tandem with Christian Duke.
“They’re all a little bit older than us, so they do have a little more experience than most of us,” said goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas of the experienced newcomers. “They really showed a lot of leadership this year and it showed on the pitch and off the pitch in how the team wanted to play. They went into our group really easily, everyone got along really quick, and we had one goal in mind and this is where we’re at right now.”
Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
Musa is having fun playing the role of the veteran for the Rangers. Although he is only 25 years old himself, that makes him one of the older players on a youthful squad.
“It’s fun,” said Musa. “I used to be one of the younger guys on the team, so for me to take on a leadership role for the younger guys to look up to me has really helped me on and off the pitch. They’re full of talent and energy, it’s fun playing with them, they’re very good players. I enjoy playing with them, it makes my game fun.”
After missing out on the postseason in his two seasons in Saint Louis, getting the chance to claim the USL Cup in his first year with the Rangers would certainly put a fine exclamation point on Musa’s year.
“It would be big for me,” he said. “This is my third year playing in the USL in the States, and I hadn’t been to the playoffs any of the [prior] years, so for me to come to Swope and see the success that they’ve had, back-to-back champions of the West and making the final again, I think this year it’s our time to raise that cup.”