What do you do when the university you’re attending decides to stop it’s soccer program entirely when you’re about to head into your senior year?
That was the nightmare scenario facing Vancouver Whitecaps’ second round draft pick Kay Banjo in 2013 when the Maryland based Towson University decided to cut the men’s soccer and baseball programs to help address a budget shortfall.
Baseball got a reprieve till 2015 but soccer was axed leaving Banjo and many others wondering if their dreams of playing in the pro ranks were over?
Banjo sat out the 2013 NCAA soccer season entirely, staying at Towson to finish a degree in sports management in the summer of 2014, but then his fortunes changed in dramatic fashion.
The striker moved across state to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (where former Whitecap Matt Watson played for two years) for one final year at college and his team-leading eight goals and five assists from 23 games helped guide the Retrievers to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in the school’s history, and a narrow 1-0 semi-final defeat to eventual College Cup champions Virginia.
One month later and Banjo is in the pro ranks with the Whitecaps. It’s quite the story and turnaround for the 22-year-old and one he didn’t think he’d ever see coming.
“It’s a dream come true,” Banjo told AFTN. “I’ve been working at this for years and it’s a great feeling for it to finally come true.
Banjo still remembers the shock and heartbreak of the meeting that broke the news that Towson were axing their soccer program. Staying on and finishing his degree was the only option he seriously considered, even if it meant no soccer. A meeting with UMBC head coach Pete Carinji Jr convinced him that taking a year out and then trying to go pro was not the right option or timing for the young striker and he made the move to the Retrievers for one final college year.
It proved to be the right decision, with UMBC, led by Banjo, going further than any side from the school had previously managed, and coming to within one game of playing for the NCAA National Championship. After everything that had happened, it was an amazing experience for Banjo and one he’ll never forget.
“Because of where I came from, being in the tournament the next year, it wasn’t anything that I thought was going to happen. God always has his plans and it worked out for the best. It was a great feeling and I’d never change that for anything.”
Banjo certainly seems to be an exciting prospect and a striker that has been able to find the back of the net on a regular basis in the college ranks.
He shone with the Towson Tigers, scoring 15 goals and contributing 11 assists in 43 games during his three years there. As mentioned, he continued to find the back of the net when he switched to UMBC, and was unanimously named the America East Conference ‘Striker of the Year’ for 2014.
Banjo went through a bit of a dry spell to end the season though, going six games without a goal or an assist. Consistency is definitely going to be a key for the talented striker moving forward and something which Carl Robinson has already identified.
“I’ve seen exactly the same as you,” Robinson told us in a conference call yesterday. “I’ve seen exceptional talent in him but I haven’t seen enough consistency. Part of my job as a coach is to try and get him more consistent and with the opportunity we’ll have with a lot of Major League Soccer games and USL games, there will be chance for him to do that.
“Because if we can get him consistent, there’s no doubt that he’s got talent. You can’t just have talent and no consistency, so it’s a little project of ours and mine and it’s one that I’m excited for. I do see a lot of raw potential in him.”
When you ask Banjo what aspect of his game he feels he needs to improve in most, he feels what every young player should feel when starting off in the pros – every aspect of it. And consistency is part of that.
“It’s the coach that’s sees it more,” Banjo told us. “Every player really has to think about everything but that’s the coach’s job to see it and if that’s how he feels I just have to put my head down and figure it out and work on improving.”
Robinson is big on character and speaking to Banjo for ten minutes, you soon see that he is another player that fits right into the mould of player that the Whitecaps are looking to bring in to the squad. He’s grounded, he’s confident without being cocky, he seems a nice, humble, quiet guy, who has the skills on the pitch to back it all up and some hard life lessons to learn from after what played out at Towson.
Described by Robinson as a “raw” talent, but one with real potential if he thrives in the professional environment now afforded to him. It’s now up to him to see if he can take it and move on to that next level. As with all draft picks, you have no idea what way this will really all go, but he’ll get his chances.
Fellow draftee Tim Parker felt that there was a real connection between himself and Robinson when they had their pre-draft chat at the combine, and it’s a feeling echoed by Banjo. So just how did that chat go?
“He pretty much pointed out all my strengths at the combine. It just seemed like everything I said was already what he was thinking and pretty much that’s what drew us together. We really did click in the conversation.
“We talked mainly about mainly about myself, not soccer as much. But the times we talked about soccer it was much the same thing we were thinking and that showed we connected.”
Robinson is always keen to know what makes a player tick off the pitch. What motivates them, what interests them away from soccer. For Banjo, it’s simple.
“Just being close to the family and being surrounded by good people. Nothing really big. I’m just a people person. I just try to surround myself with positivized people.”
And he’ll find a lot of those around the Whitecaps right now, although he doesn’t know and hasn’t come across any existing ‘Caps in his soccer career so far and is another who has never been to Canada before.
“I don’t know one player from Vancouver [personally]. I mean they’re really far up there!” he joked with us. “I don’t really know anybody there but I’m excited to find out and meet new people.”
Coming to a Whitecaps MLS squad, already almost bursting at the seems, Banjo knows he needs to hit the ground running and impress once the preseason training camp gets up and running next weekend. So for those who haven’t seen him play before, how would he describe his game and the skills and qualities he’ll bring to Vancouver?
“I’m quick on the ball, I’m quick thinking. Great team player and I’m versatile. I can play on the wing or forward, wherever is needed. A lot of long range shots. I have vision. Strong, powerful, quick. The lot.”
He can certainly shoot and registered 180 of them in his four years and 65 games at college. That’s an average of just under three a game, with almost a 3.5 average during his time with UMBC last year.
He’s primarily played forward at college level but when the Whitecaps drafted him, it was hard to see him getting too much initial opportunity to that right now. Kekuta Manneh has struggled to find those minutes and you may see Banjo get minutes in that position in USL PRO, whilst being turned into a winger in the process. He certainly has the speed and skill to make that adjustment but what does he see as his preferred position?
“I’d rather play the forward role,” Banjo told us. “If it’s needed I’ll play on the wing too but I feel comfortable in both spots.”
Talking of USL PRO, it’s also hard not to see that being where Robinson sees the 22-year-old striker fitting in right now. If that is where he ends up for most of this year, it’s an opportunity Banjo is already approaching with the right attitude.
“Playing that it gives you development for the first team I feel like. If that’s what the coach feels that that’s what I have to do to prove myself, then I will.”
Wherever Banjo ends up getting minutes in 2015, the big benefit for him is that he’s coming to a club that doesn’t just talk about playing younger players but actually does it and that’s something that himself, Parker and others are all very aware and excited by.
“That’s what got me interested in everything he was saying,” Banjo said of his initial chats with Robinson. “He’s more about the younger players and development. That’s what he saw in me and I’m excited to join.”