For every bright-eyed youth soccer player, the lavish lights of the professional game are a dream acquired early on. Making it to that level, no matter where, is an impressive feat in and of itself; it is the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and an unflinching refusal to give up. For St. Louis Park’s very own Emmanuel Iwe, that accomplishment came in the colors of his hometown club, and it was a deserved payoff at the end of an inspiring story.
When Iwe was just six years old, his family packed up their things in their native Nigeria and made the move to the frozen north. They ended up in St. Louis Park, not far from Excelsior Boulevard and Louisiana Oaks Park. With busy soccer fields just a few minutes from home, it was only a matter of time before Emmanuel started playing with the youngest of his three older brothers.
"We used to come here and we would play pickup," Iwe said about the park. "And I always begged my mom to have him take me with him. He didn't really want to at first, but he brought me to play. He's eight years older than me, so when I was eight, he was 16. Much, much older. We’d ride our bikes, probably a 15-minute bike ride to get here. And then we played, and he'd say, alright, well, someone's got to take my little brother. Then, when they actually figured out that I was good, his friends started asking him to bring me to play. So it became this regular thing, maybe once a week or every other week."
Like so many Minnesota migrants, the Iwe family originally arrived innocently in the summer, just in time to appreciate how beautiful the state is when it wants to be. After enduring the winters for a few years, they’d had enough and opted to move across the country to Arizona in 2011.
Though he spent most of the year in the Southwest, Iwe’s connection to the Minnesota soccer scene endured. He returned every summer to play with Joy of the People, staying with Club Director Ted Kroeten and his family as he continued to grow and develop as a player. At that age, though, and for Iwe in general, the beautiful game is more about fun than anything else.
"It was almost like a summer camp," he remembered. "We would play constantly, every single summer. For six days a week, maybe get a Sunday off. Or we would go play in the Hispanic league on Sundays. Sometimes we would just play from nine to three every day, come home, and just be dead tired, you know? It was always such a good time."
Taking the Leap
When his family moved again in 2017, Emmanuel found himself in Corpus Christi, Texas. With high school soccer nearly at an end and the next step in his career looming, it was time for the young man to consider his options.
His first step outside of Minnesota soccer saw Iwe play briefly for USL League 2 side Corpus Christi FC. Shortly after, he set his sights on a higher level, traveling to Germany with his childhood friend and teammate for a trial with Werder Bremen. While he didn’t end up signing with the team, the experience taught him plenty about the future he was chasing.
"It kind of allowed me to get a broader sense of what it was like to be a pro at an early age," Iwe said. "I had never been in an environment like that. Where everyone's class and the expectations are high. You’ve got to be on point when you come in as a trialist, especially when you don't even speak the language. It was really tough. We did well, I think, for a couple of kids that played high school soccer. Obviously, they didn't take us, but I came back thinking this pro thing could work out."
Upon returning to the U.S., Iwe had a trial period with Philadelphia Union as well, but ultimately ended up returning to Minnesota after it concluded. He kept his nose to the grindstone, finishing his high school career at St. Louis Park High School before committing to play at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. As is typical of the best laid plans, though, the story would take a turn before he even set foot on campus. In late 2019, an opportunity to go on trial with Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa presented itself, and he couldn’t say no.
"If I’m honest, I was already committed to the college route," he said. "I didn't think the pro thing was going to work out right away. I was just thinking I’d do the typical college route and see if I could pop off in college and maybe get drafted. So I was like, well, it's a nice two-week vacation in Costa Rica. Who's going to turn that down? At this point, I was already committed to college; I’d gone on two trials and been told no twice. So we went down to Costa Rica, and I think the fact that I almost didn't care is what allowed me to play better. I was just kind of there to play. Within three or four days, they messaged the guy that brought me down there and said they wanted to sign me."
A two-week vacation turned into a fantastic opportunity, and Iwe opted to take this new path rather than college soccer. At least temporarily.
In 2020, the pandemic threw the world into disarray. Social distancing and mandates forced sports to shut down, and the ensuing cuts saw Saprissa release Iwe from his contract. Back in Minnesota, with few options and the feeling that his dream was slipping from his grasp, he needed to find somewhere to play quickly.
That’s where college soccer reenters the picture. The same friend that he stayed with in the summers as a child had committed to play at St. Cloud State University, and he knew that Iwe would be a fantastic addition to the program in its first year of existence. In just one season with the Huskies, he started all 18 games, scored six goals, and added four assists.
Back Where He Belongs
After traveling the world to make his dream of professional soccer a reality, Iwe’s chance to go pro came right here at home.
"I remember someone texting me and saying United was holding an open trial," he said. "And I remember the day. Within 30 minutes of the news, my name was already typed in, and I was signed up and paid for. I kid you not, I was probably the first one to sign up for the trial. You have to put credentials and all this stuff about where you've played before. And luckily, they accepted me, and the rest is history."
After summers of travel and club soccer, two trials, one pandemic, and a season of college soccer, Emmanuel Iwe signed a professional contract with MNUFC2 in 2022. No distance was too far to travel, and no roadblock was too much to overcome. In the end, this young man was always going to succeed because he was never going to give up.
The rest of the story should sound familiar to Loons fans: a season spent in MLS NEXT Pro, a cameo appearance against Everton, a disappointing season-ending injury to stop what was a momentum-filled 2022. After all of that, MNUFC selected him in the second round of the 2023 MLS SuperDraft, officially securing the rights to sign him to an MLS contract. Life as a professional player ramped up fast.
Iwe made his return from injury in the first-team’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, making his MLS debut before he even played an MLS NEXT Pro match in 2023. The speedy winger made several more appearances for Adrian Heath before becoming the first MNUFC2 player to earn a first-team contract with the club, including a fantastic performance against Detroit City SC in the U.S. Open Cup. That Cup match was particularly memorable for him, as he notched his first goal for the club.
"I remember getting the ball in that game," Iwe said. "You can kind of see me hesitate because I pick up the ball and I don't see any options. And I was like, screw it. I took it to the left, and I just hit a prayer. I shot it, saw it take a deflection, and just watched the ball loop and go bar-down. The stadium just went dead quiet. All you could hear in the entire stadium was me screaming to the corner, and I think that was really great. It gave me a huge confidence boost to get my first goal and have it be in my first start for the club as well."
Every time he takes to the pitch, Iwe is a livewire. His speed, power, and ability to effortlessly beat players on the dribble make him a force to be reckoned with, and he seems to get better with every subsequent appearance. Beyond his physical abilities, his determination, work ethic, and positive attitude further separate him from the pack, making him a player to watch in the years to come. Regardless of where he goes and what he accomplishes in his promising career, one truth will remain: Emmanuel Iwe is one of our own.