Many African players have featured for Minnesota United since the team joined MLS in 2017. It began with the team’s first-ever pick in the MLS SuperDraft as the Loons selected Ghana’s Abu Danladi first in 2017. Ismail Jome was born in The Gambia and Bertrand Owundi Eko’o and Frantz Pangop came from Cameroon. Kei Kamara came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone as a refugee when he was a teenager and 2021 draft pick Nabilai Kibunguchy is a first-generation American whose parents come from Kenya — the home country of Lawrence Olum, who played for MNUFC in 2019. With the 17th pick in the SuperDraft this year, the Loons selected Tani Oluwaseyi from Nigeria. And then of course there is Madagascar national team member and MLS All-Star Romain Metanire.
Now the team welcomes its first signing from South Africa, forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane. The 21-year-old national team player is Minnesota’s first U22 initiative signing and has already made waves internationally, scoring the game-winning goal against Ghana in a World Cup Qualifier last year.
But he is not the first South African in Minnesota professional soccer. That honor goes to none other than Minnesota Kicks legend Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe.
Born in 1956 in Randfontein, about 25 miles west of the capital of Johannesburg, Ntsoelengoe joined the fledgling Kaizer XI team when he was 17 years old. Founded by Kaizer Motaung — who had played for the Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League and then returned to South Africa — the team evolved into the now-legendary Kaiser Chiefs, and the dazzling midfield play of Ntsoelengoe was a cornerstone of the early Kaiser Chiefs squads.
In the offseason, Ntsoelengoe traveled to the U.S. to play in the NASL, eventually landing with the Denver Dynamos in 1975 and then moving with the rest of the team to Minnesota as the Minnesota Kicks. There, Ntsoelengoe would make 155 appearances and score 50 goals, putting him fifth on the team’s all-time scoring list. Overall, he played for 11 seasons in the NASL and racked up 94 goals, good for seventh on the league’s all-time scoring list, and he was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 2003. He passed away in 2006 in South Africa at the age of 50.
While he may not be a household name in Minnesota, among longtime soccer fans in the state, Ace is held in as much reverence as legends like Alan Willey and Alan Merrick. Thanks to all of them, and many more, soccer is in a very different place both in Minnesota and in the country as whole than it was back in the late 1970s. When Hlongwane arrives in Minnesota, he will be stepping into a pro soccer ecosystem that is orders of magnitude more robust. MNUFC is beginning its sixth season in MLS, its fourth at the soccer-specific Allianz Field and is coming off of its third-straight trip to the playoffs. This year, Minnesota United launches its MNUFC2 team in the MLS NEXT Pro league.
At just 21 years old, it’s hard to predict the future for Hlongwane but he’ll certainly have every possible opportunity to succeed, thanks in no small part to the trail blazed by Ace.