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At only 17 years of age, the diminutive winger is already making a name for himself at FC Edmonton in the North American Soccer League.

When Hanson Boakai thinks back to the time when he first discovered his passion for soccer, he remembers not having shoes.

Born and raised, through early childhood, in the poverty-stricken West African republic of Guinea-Bissau, playing soccer was more than just a favourite pastime.

“It was all we ever did,” Boakai recalled, speaking to Goal Canada by telephone. “There was no hockey, there was no basketball—it was just soccer.” 

Though he did take up a little basketball after he and his family moved to Edmonton by way of war-ravaged Liberia when he was seven, soccer remained Boakai’s primary preoccupation growing up.

Now 17, Boakai’s interest in soccer goes beyond the simple pleasure of playing the sport. As a star midfielder for local club FC Edmonton in the North American Soccer League, he now envisions a long and successful playing career.

But there was a point where Boakai nearly gave up his soccer playing aspirations entirely. When he was 14, Boakai tried out for the Alberta provincial soccer team but didn’t make it, and he was left feeling disillusioned.

“I decided that I wasn’t good at soccer, and thought, ‘I’m just going to play basketball,’” Boakai recalled. 

Boakai’s soccer coach, Hussein Shabdi, was, however, convinced of the boy’s talents; so much so, that when Boakai would skip soccer practice to play basketball at his local basketball court, Shabdi would drive there to retrieve him.

“He really looked after me, and believed in me,” Boakai said. “He’s the reason why I’m here today.”

A year later, Boakai made the provincial team and shortly after, he was scouted by the Vancouver Whitecaps and invited on trial. Since FC Edmonton had just launched an academy of its own, however, he decided to join his local team instead, a decision which Boakai maintains "was the best I ever made."

It was all we ever did. There was no hockey, there was no basketball—it was just soccer.”

- FC Edmonton's Hanson Boakai

At FC Edmonton, it took very little time for Boakai to climb the ranks. Within a year, the speedy and creative left winger, who stands at an elfin five-foot-four, went from the club’s academy to the reserves, to landing with the senior team. Last season, at 16, Boakai became the youngest player to ever play in the NASL and, just last week, he became the youngest player to score in the Voyageurs Cup, leading the Eddies, almost singlehandedly with a goal and two assists, to a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Fury and a place in the semifinals.

Edmonton coach Colin Miller has no reservations about Boakai’s talents being out of the ordinary.

“I had the privilege of being our national interim coach last year and I certainly didn’t see a player like Hanson in the entire group, at any time. I think this wee guy is really special,” Miller told Goal Canada by telephone this week. “I can assure you that I didn’t play him last season in the first team for a publicity stunt.

“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”

After playing in three games last season, Boakai has already taken up a starting role with the Eddies, though he admits, it can be physically challenging at times, given his much smaller stature.

“It’s really difficult because I’m really short, all these guys are like twice my size and I have to battle against all these guys. But the coach believes in me and still plays me, even though I’m like small, he still plays me,” Boakai said. “For now I’m just trying to start more games in the league.”

But what Boakai lacks in size he more than makes up for with his ability and skill, Miller explained, though he still has to develop some of the finer points of the game.

“Who am I to teach him how to dribble? I couldn’t keep a beach ball up inside of a phone box compared to what Hanson is like,” Miller said. “What he has to learn is when to release the ball, when to dribble, when his team has lost possession can he get back and help after—that’s an area that we try to focus on but we don’t want to be over the top on it either, because with those special talents, with the ball at his feet, you want to encourage that side of it.”

Hanson Boakai has become a focal point for opposing defences.

Boakai has also represented Canada internationally at the under-17 level, leading the Reds to the Under-17 World Cup in Dubai last September. And given Canada’s offensive struggles at the senior level, Bokai could even find himself playing with the men’s team in time for next summer’s Gold Cup, which now also serves as a qualification route for the new Copa Centenario in 2016.

European sides are also starting to take notice of the winger's talent. In January, Boakai spent a month on trial at German side Dusseldorf, where 19-year-old Canadian midfielder Samuel Piette currently plays for the reserve team.

A transfer to Europe could well be on the cards for Boakai, especially once he turns 18 this fall, but Miller insists he’s very keen on retaining the young talent and that only a very handsome fee could pry him away from the club.

“He’s going absolutely nowhere, I can assure you, unless there’s an incredible offer that comes in from somewhere,” Miller said. “Every player has a price, but it has to be right, because Hanson is still a very young player.”

For now, the priority for Miller and FC Edmonton remains helping the 17-year-old develop as a player and teaching him how to best go about his day. 

“It’s important we nurture the guy and help him maturity wise off the field as well as anything else, so that if he does move, and I use the words 'if he does move', that he is more prepared for that next move, because he might not have somebody to pick him up and drop him off at training every day,” Miller said. “When he’s on the field he’s at his best, he’s at his happiest, but he has to learn diet, and all these other things off the field, and hopefully we’re having a positive influence on all those things."

As much as Boakai dreams of playing in Europe, his focus remains improving in the present.

“Hopefully a big team in Europe can see me play and like what they see," Boakai said. “But right now I just got to worry about playing and getting better."

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