Because it’s a game played all across the world, soccer is looked at as a kind of international language, but it also has dialects. In different parts of the world, different kinds of soccer are played, with different regions being known for primarily defensive play, for tactical, heady play, for open-ended, speedy play. Teams thus often gravitate towards collecting players from certain regions. Consider the strong South American contingent that anchored Tata Martino’s Atlanta United in the team’s inaugural season or the group of four Hondurans who played for Houston Dynamo last season prior to Romell Quioto’s move to the Montreal Impact. Minnesota United itself — back in the team’s NASL days — had upwards of seven Brazilians on the roster at one time, including Pablo Campos, Tiago Calvano and Ibson. And now, for MNUFC, it’s New Zealand.
An island nation with a population about half that of New York City now has three players in Minnesota: the long-tenured Michael Boxall from the team’s inaugural season, 2020 SuperDraft pick Noah Billingsley and the newly acquired James Musa, who arrived from the USL’s Phoenix Rising after an impressive 2019 that saw him have a hand in an unprecedented 20-game winning streak as a box-to-box midfielder.
“It's always nice when you join a new team to know somebody, to have a familiar face and Boxy, obviously, I've played with Boxy for a long time — five, 10 years — through the national team,” said Musa. “I've actually played with his younger brother, who's my age. Boxy's familiar. I don't know Noah [Billingsley] too well, but obviously he's a Kiwi so we get along well. I used to play with Ike [Opara] as well, so it makes it easy.”
The 27-year-old Musa has gotten accustomed to fitting in wherever he’s gone in a career that began with Wellington Phoenix in New Zealand at the age of 18 in 2010-11 — two years before Boxall’s stint began there from 2013-15. Since then, he’s been on rosters from Fulham to Saint Louis FC to Sporting KC (with Opara), not to mention on the New Zealand National Team.
“There have been some really cool ones, club-wise,” he said. “Playing in the Prem was awesome. Internationally for New Zealand, the Olympics, was amazing. The U20 World Cup and representing my country. Football's one of those games that can take you anywhere and you can meet some incredible people. I've been lucky enough to play with and against some top players.”
Although the 6-foot Musa grew up playing centerback in New Zealand, his career has seen him range around the pitch since coming stateside. “When I came over here they said they wanted to try me in midfield and it worked pretty well, and now I feel like I've added a few good pieces to my game,” he told New Zealand’s Stuff last year. “I'm capable of playing in a back three, centerback still, left back, I can play anywhere in midfield centrally and right now I'm playing as more a defensive midfielder but I think my strongest position is like a box-to-box eight where I'm able to get up and down and recover ground. I love the game and I like learning new things and if I can get on the field in any position I'd do it.”
Having already proved himself extremely adaptable on the pitch, Musa is also going to have to do a little adapting off the pitch to Minnesota’s climate, having been in Arizona since 2018.
“I actually drove here from Phoenix and I was just watching the temperature go down, down, down,” he said. “It couldn't be more polar opposite to Phoenix, but I have played in Kansas City and St. Louis, so I'm used to the snow, the cold a little bit. It's funny because people keep asking me, 'What do you think of the city?' and I'm like, 'I don't know because I can't see anything.' My girlfriend also has a lot of friends that have lived here and they've had nothing but good things to say about Minneapolis so I'm excited.”
Boxall might be slotted in for the foreseeable future along the backline, but with Billingsley a rookie and Musa looking to break into a midfield that already boasts Osvaldo Alonso, Jan Gregus and Hassani Dotson, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see all three of the “Kiwi Kontingent” at Allianz Field together anytime soon. But the season is long and uncertain, and in MLS, depth is becoming more important than ever. Musa, for one, does not lack for enthusiasm.
“I was excited throughout the offseason at the prospect of coming here,” he said. “I've heard a lot of good things from Ike and Boxy. Just coming here and seeing the training facility and hopefully seeing the stadium sometime soon and to get in front of the fans will be electrifying. I'm really excited about it and I want to contribute to the team and bring some success and some trophies.”