Durban - Bongokuhle Hlongwane’s Bafana Bafana performances combined with a new American soccer initiative known as the "U-22 initiative" helped the player secure a move to the United States from Maritzburg United, according to Major League Soccer (MLS) insider Andrew Olsson.
The 21-year-old was signed by Minnesota United on a three-year contract this week with a “one year club option”. He also becomes the Loons first U-22 signing.
“The U-22 initiative allows each team in MLS to sign players who fit that bill at a reduced cost to the salary cap. It had to do with his (Hlongwane's) national team performances. He broke through with Bafana Bafana in World Cup qualifiers and every African World Cup qualifier has been broadcast in the US. I’d imagine that MLS teams have been following those matches to identify talent. Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos also gave Hlongwane a good endorsement. Bafana under Broos have been trying to bring in younger players,” said Olsson, speaking to Independent Media.
Hlongwane’s move comes on the back on a breakthrough year during which he established himself as a rising star for Bafana Bafana and arguably became Maritzburg United’s most influential player. Hlongwane scored two goals in 2021 for Bafana Bafana (against Uganda and Ghana).
Olsson also suggested that MLS teams are more likely to scout players from modest DSTV Premiership clubs such as Maritzburg United over more financially boosted clubs such as the Gauteng giants for cost-effectiveness reasons.
“I’d imagine MLS clubs will not really look at players from clubs like Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs as those clubs can compete well salary wize with MLS clubs. They must have seen Hlongwane during World Cup qualifying and established that he was performing well for Maritzburg United and then spoke with Broos,” said Olsson.
By moving to the US, Hlongwane will be one of two South African footballers plying their trade in the American top-flight with Kamohelo Mokotjo also being on the books of FC Cincinnati while former South Africa U17 player Lindo Mfeka currently plays for Oakland Roots in the USL Championship (second-tier of American soccer).
The South-African international made his national team debut in 2019 and has two goals in six appearances.— MNUFC But In The Offseason (@MNUFC) January 5, 2022
He scored his first international goal in 2021 against Uganda and scored the game-winning goal against Ghana in a World Cup Qualifier.
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Hlongwane inarguably has the ability to succeed and shine in the United States. Soccer remains a growing sport in the United States among men with the United States men's national team not enjoying the same level of success compared to their women counterparts who dominate international women's football.
While the quality of soccer in the United States men's football fraternity is continuously improving, the bulk of players playing top-flight football in the US are not significantly better than the quality of most players in South African top-flight football.
Meanwhile, former Bafana Bafana star Bradley Carnell has also continued to make waves in the US by being appointed as the coach of St Louis City SC who are due to be integrated into the MLS in 2023.
Carnell has been in the US for five years, having initially been appointed as assistant coach of New York Red Bulls in 2017. He served as head coach of the Red Bulls between September-November 2020 following the sacking of Chris Armas.